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Youth Homelessness: It’s a Whole New Ballgame.

Youth Homelessness: It’s a Whole New Ballgame.

Connecticut’s achievements in successfully matching veterans and the chronically homeless with places to live lead the nation. We have effective, efficient solutions in place for those now facing the same problem.  A tremendous start, but our work is not done. Next on our agenda is ending youth (and family) homelessness by 2020–a topic explored yesterday at the Annual Training Institute of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.

So, why is youth homeless a separate issue? First, homeless youth are harder to identify: they are ‘hiding in plain sight,’ and the techniques that work with adults are not successful with youth.

How do we find homeless youth? An annual point-in-time count sends volunteers to locations homeless youth are known to congregate. This provides an estimate, but in no way identifies all local youth who need housing assistance. In addition, many youth do not want to share the fact that they are homeless with anyone, due to embarrassment; fear of being placed in the ‘system’ or forced to go to another high school; unawareness of their rights and resources; or simply because they do not consider themselves homeless if they are sleeping on someone’s couch.

How can we effectively help youth? Today, any homeless person in Connecticut can call 211 for housing assistance. Most youth do not know about the 211 resource and, while 85 percent of those surveyed said they wanted help, almost 60 percent of homeless youth said they would not use the resource. Focus groups and an online survey for homeless youth conducted by A Way Home America revealed several factors not currently practiced with adults that would make them young people receptive to help:

  • Youth want to be contacted where they are. Seventy percent said that they would be open to being approached on Facebook, Twitter, at a public library, their school, or a community center.
  • Youth desire face-to-face contact. They find dialing 211 too impersonal and an impediment to sharing their story. (Telling it once is traumatizing enough.) They also want to interact with the same person every time, rather than being referred to other contacts.
  • Youth want to talk to someone who’s “been there” – who’s closer to their own age, who’s experienced homelessness, and who is relatable.
  • Youth are receptive to being given tools, information, options and guidance. They do not want someone to tell them what to do. They also want follow up by their first point of contact, rather than left feeling that they have been abandoned.
  • Youth are concerned about the suitability of shelter options available to adult homeless and prefer to stay with others closer in age.

What’s happening in Connecticut? At the Connecticut Coalition on Ending Homeless’s Annual Training Institute, several groups talked about options that, while still in the early stages, are making a difference.

  • Representatives from A Way Home America talked about steps they are taking to make it less stressful for youth to seek help, including collaboration with youth to fully understand their perspective and needs, acting on input, and deployment of specially trained “youth navigators” who are prepared to work with youth on their terms.
  • The City of Meriden has developed a toolkit for high school students that enables them to define youth homelessness, informs students of their rights, introduces help resources, and makes students more receptive to seeking help for themselves or their peers. At the CCEH annual meeting, five representatives from the Meriden school system (Superintendent Mark Benigi, Maloney High Principal Jennifer Straub; teacher Jessica Showerda, and students Mia Atterberry, and Samantha Mercier) were honored with a special award for their ground-breaking work.
  • Three local agencies – Project Return, The Connection, and Pacific House – talked about their unique approaches to housing and assisting homeless youth, placing them into peer settings, focusing on problem solving, and helping students make a plan for the future.

While much work remains to be done, Connecticut is in the forefront of addressing youth homelessness. We’ve better defined the needs of this class of homeless and we are beginning to get our arms around how best to temporarily house youth and set them on a more stable path to adulthood. Don’t be surprised, come 2020, when Connecticut turns up in the number-one spot again for ending youth homelessness!