SACRAMENTO – A recent report comparing the experiences of Caucasian and African American homeless youth describes stark differences between how those two groups seek and access support services, including the key finding that African American youth are less likely to self-identify as homeless, suggesting their numbers may be larger than previously believed.
The implication for homeless service providers, say researchers, is clear: programs need revamping if they are to meet the needs of what is ostensibly an invisible population.
The Homeless Youth Project (HYP), a program of the California Research Bureau, released the report. HYP will co-host a press conference with State Senator Carol Liu next week to unveil its State Action Plan to End Youth Homelessness. Young people, homeless service providers and policy experts are expected to attend the briefing, which will take place on January 8 at 10 a.m., in room 3191 of the State Capitol.
The release of the report and action plan comes at a time when youth homelessness is gaining national attention. The issue caught the eye of the Obama Administration – the federal government launched a campaign last year to count the number of young people on U.S. streets -- while The New York Times reported a growing number of 18-24 year-olds are sleeping in cars or couch surfing, due in part to a dried up job market.
Los Angeles and Boston both recently completed counts of homeless youth in their respective cities. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the 200 African American and white homeless youth surveyed for the HYP report convey insights that go beyond a tally sheet. The report was co-authored by Colette Auerswald, associate professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, and Ginny Puddefoot, a former director at HYP.
According to Auerswald and Puddlefoot, African American youth are less likely to call themselves “homeless,” even when they do not know where they will be sleeping from one day to the next. Those surveyed used the term “couch surfing” instead, and many said they stay with a different family member or friend each night. Other survival strategies included walking the streets, or napping on buses or at fast food restaurants, according to the report.
The white youth surveyed in the report were more inclined to self-identify as homeless, and more likely to access services labeled as such, including shelters and food banks.
While shelters were not a commonly accessed resource for either group, one African American “couch surfer” said he did find one social service to be particularly useful.
“The only service that I really have gotten is emergency food stamps, which helps me couch surf,” said Josh Williams. “I’m like, ‘I’ll help with the groceries if you let me stay here for a while."
African American youth surveyed by HYP were 19 percent more likely than their white counterparts to have received shelter from a relative during the previous month. White youth, in contrast, reported that contact with family was mostly limited to occasional phone calls.
Despite any existing familial ties, the youth may maintain while on the streets, the report confirmed a commonly held assumption: most youth are homeless because of abuse and neglect in the home.
The HYP survey, however, revealed major differences in the way that abuse is dealt with by social service agencies. The African American youth were 38 percent more likely to be placed in the foster care system by Child Protective Services than whites. African American young people were also more likely to attribute family conflict to temporary problems associated with such issues as finances or substance abuse. Whites, on the other hand, often viewed their family trouble as being permanent and irresolvable.
These and other findings were discussed in depth during a forum held at the State Capitol in November and co-hosted by HYP and California Assemblymember Holly Mitchell. Mitchell is the current chair of the Assembly Committee on Health and Human Services and a lifelong advocate for low-income Californians. Panelists included representatives from At the Crossroads and Larkin Street, both homeless youth service organizations in San Francisco. Two youth panelists were also on hand to discuss the report’s findings through the lens of their own personal experiences.
All agreed on the need to reframe the language around homelessness, expanding its definition to include those living in “unstable housing.” Doing so, they said, would allow homeless resource groups like At the Crossroads, which currently operates the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT Team) that outreaches to chronically homeless adults, to both better target and serve African American youth on the streets.
“I would say about half of the white kids that we work with have been able to access the HOT Team and have used it to get off of the streets. One black youth that we work with has been able to,” said Rob Gitin, director of At the Crossroads, and one of the panelists at the forum. “That plays into the issue of who self-identifies as homeless and who other people look at as homeless.”
In their report, Auerswald and Puddefoot acknowledge that prior to adopting the term “unstable housing,” they had difficulty even identifying African American homeless youth to participate in the survey. Based on their experience, they and other panelists agreed that the number of African American homeless youth in San Francisco and elsewhere is likely grossly underestimated.
Service providers in other urban areas have also noticed an increasing number of African American homeless youth. In Los Angeles, although African Americans are only 9.3 percent of the population, they make up 40 percent of the homeless youth population served by at least one of the major homeless youth organizations.
The “invisibility” discussion at the forum soon turned into a brainstorm about how to better reach and serve homeless youth of color.
“I think what was telling and impactful for me today is hearing from the young people talk about how they don’t connect to services,” said Assemblymember Mitchell, who suggested there be at least one institution that homeless youth be connected to in order to get informed of the services that do exist.
One institution not typically viewed as a resource was nevertheless discussed as a possible bridge for youth to homeless services.
“Almost every young black kid that we work with goes to jail,” said Gitin, who added that jail could be an ideal “point of outreach” for homeless youth to connect to much needed services. Other institutions that could outreach to African American youth on the street were also proposed at the forum, such as public housing complexes and schools.
In the report, Auerswald and Puddefoot put forward a series of their own policy recommendations based on the findings, including the provision of support services to African American families currently providing housing to young relatives or friends. Another is vocational services, as many homeless youth respondents cited unemployment as a cause for their homelessness.
With HYP ready to release their recommendations for statewide policy actions based on their report findings, other efforts to address the vocational needs of the homeless population in California are underway. The California Public Utilities Commission recently approved the “Lifeline” program, which will supply homeless people with cell phones, provided they both currently receive federal benefits and meet certain poverty thresholds. The federal program will start in early 2013 and is expected to help people living on the street attain employment, housing, and social services, in addition to helping families connect with their loved ones.
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