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Field Notes

The Complications of Solving Youth Homelessness: Using Data to Make a Dent

September 24, 2012

Though there is a significant body of evidence supporting solutions to various types of adult homelessness, including chronic homelessness, we have little research about best practices for serving homeless youth. Experts understand some of the causes of youth homelessness, such as family conflict, abuse, or a lack of support for youth exiting foster care. What experts are only beginning to understand, however, is how to help these youth escape homelessness. There are several factors behind the lack of information on homeless youth.

First, the circumstances of youth homelessness often do not fit traditional visions of people living on the streets, making it difficult for researchers and service providers to count or even find homeless youth. Some homeless youth may live on the streets, but more often they move around to stay with friends or family for a few days at a time. Homeless youth often actively hide from authorities and service providers, as they are afraid of being put into state custody. Experts also agree that it is not best for youth to use adult homeless shelters, as these facilities do not provide enough support for them. But there are few youth-specific models to help people transition out of homelessness.

Second, the diversity of homeless youth challenges existing services. Limited research suggests that the largest number of homeless youth are short-term runaways who are homeless for less than one month. Experts agree on the general approach to helping these youth through providing them with emergency housing and family counseling in order to work out the crises that caused them to leave home. After they return home, home-based counseling for several months can also improve family dynamics so that youth don’t want to run away again. Despite this general idea of the services short-term homeless youth need, there is little evidence supporting specific program models or counseling methodologies that are effective with youth.

A smaller number of homeless youth cannot return home and need more than short-term emergency services. These youth often need support to build the skills and social connections that will help them to grow into independent adults. Certain service providers help these youth find housing and jobs, finish their educations, learn to budget, and build relationships with caring friends and mentors. Yet experts still have many questions about the specifics of these services. What are the best housing models for youth? What is the most effective curriculum for teaching youth to budget? What types of family counseling interventions can help short-term homeless youth? Again, there is little research about the effectiveness of specific program models.

Nonprofits, policymakers, and academics recognize this lack of information and understand that gathering clear data about homeless youth is a key step in helping them to build more positive lives for themselves. Experts are working together now to develop a base of evidence about best practices for youth homelessness programs. For the most current information on research, policy, and service developments in this field, check back for the Root Cause Social Issue Report, Improving Outcomes for Homeless

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