Why Our Model of Alleviating Youth Homelessness Will Work in Other Places as Well

Now that we’ve discussed the backgrounddesign, and initial findings of our Alameda County Assembly Bill 12 Homeless Youth Demonstration Project, let’s take a brief look at a couple other jurisdictions in California to see what commonalities exist among older homeless adolescents and the barriers to housing stability they contend with.

San Francisco’s homeless youth are well served by Larkin Street Youth Services, whose report, Youth Homelessness in San Francisco: 2012 Report on Incidence and Needs (May 2013) provides an excellent overview.

Another report – No Way Home: Understanding the Needs and Experiences of Homeless Youth in Hollywood – released in November 2010 by the Division of Adolescent Medicine, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the Agencies of the Hollywood Homeless Youth Partnership (HHYP) – is an in-depth report on youth homelessness in Hollywood.  Comparing the findings in these reports with those of our project, we note many commonalities among older homeless youth.

Barriers to Housing Stability

Not surprisingly, the life circumstances of homeless youth are similar across locations. Most have histories of previous involvement in the foster care or juvenile justice systems. In L.A., 40 percent of homeless youth surveyed reported having been removed from their homes by Child Protective Services, and 69 percent reported involvement with the juvenile or criminal justice system at some point in their lives. Forty-four percent of homeless youth served by Larkin Street reported having been in foster care, and over half of the youth reported having been arrested, with a third having spent time in jail.

Forty-two percent of youth in the Alameda County AB 12 Demonstration Project, who are as a set younger than the youths surveyed in LA or served by Larkin Street, were currently or had previously been in foster care; 41 percent had current or previous involvement with the juvenile justice system. In all, eight out of ten youth referred to the AB 12 Demo Project reported prior involvement in either the foster care or juvenile justice system.

Mental Health Challenges and Other Risk Factors

Largely due to the stress arising from their systems involvement, as well as from living on the streets or being precariously housed with relatives or acquaintances, homeless youth experience mental heath issues, no matter which part of the state they live in. Nearly half of the youth served by Larkin Street reported episodes of serious depression in the previous 30 days. Similarly in L.A., close to half of the youth surveyed by HHYP met the criteria for clinical depression.

The numbers in Alameda County look much the same, with about half of the youth accessing BayLegal (54 out of 112) reporting that they had been diagnosed with at least one serious mental health concern.

Whether in L.A., San Francisco, or Oakland, homeless youth struggled not only with family conflict and mental health issues but also substance abuse, risk of commercial sexual exploitation, lack of education participation, among other common circumstances that create barriers to their housing stability.

What Does All This Mean?

Most young people who wind up homeless in this state are fleeing disrupted family situations as indicated by their previous systems involvement and self-reporting. They have significant vulnerabilities arising from histories of trauma inherent in the experience of removal from the home (and the experiences that precipitated it), as well as subsequent mental health and substance abuse issues. As any service provider could tell you, they are very difficult to successfully serve.

Our model relies on the provision of civil legal advocacy to allow youth access to income support, health coverage, and other public benefits, as well as case management to ensure their successful ongoing access so that these services can provide the bridge to stability, as they are designed to do. In our model, case management is provided by the same attorneys who help youth access the benefits.

This ongoing relationship takes youth from shelter to stability with a “warm handoff” instead of a cold referral. Project attorneys don’t just help a youth enroll in MediCal– they sign them up, then walk with them into a clinic to introduce them to a therapist so that they can take that first step across the bridge toward more stable ground.

In my next post, we’ll go into more detail about the recommendations for other jurisdictions as well as our plans to replicate the project.

Reed Connell is the Executive Director of the Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance.

On January 1, 2012, Assembly Bill 12, California’s Fostering Connections to Success Act, became law, providing for the expansion of federally funded, mandated supports and services to foster youth ages 18-21. The Alameda County AB 12 Homeless Youth Demonstration Project was timed to coincide with the implementation of this extraordinary new law. This series documents the project’s purpose, procedures, and findings.

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About Reed Connell 6 Articles
Reed Connell is the Executive Director of the Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance.