Voices from the street: CRB highlights issues affecting homeless youth in California

The California Research Bureau (CRB) has been conducting a research and policy education project on homeless youth for almost 2 years now. The project, funded by The California Wellness Foundation, has brought together a diverse group of researchers, program directors, local and state agency program managers, local and state policymakers, and homeless and formerly homeless youth to identify and discuss the many challenges facing homeless young people. The CRB project team consists of Ginny Puddefoot (Project Director) and Lisa Foster (Senior Researcher for the project), under the direction of Charlene Simmons (Assistant Director). CRB once again partnered with independent journalist Nell Bernstein and the California Council on Youth Relations (CCYR), which greatly expanded the project team’s capacity to reach community-based providers and homeless and formerly homeless youth.

Surveying street youth: the heart of the research

Perhaps the most unique aspect of this project is that the research included a street-outreach survey in which homeless and formerly homeless youth were recruited and trained to interview their peers throughout the state. Over 200 interviews were conducted in 23 cities in California. In addition, CCYR organized focus groups of homeless youth in several cities. This research is at the heart of the recently-released CRB report, “Voices from the Street: A Survey of Homeless Youth by Their Peers”. The report summarizes the research findings about homeless youth’s experiences, their ideas about the kind of support that would help them the most, and the changes they would like to see happen in policy or law.

The research findings clearly debunk many misconceptions about homeless youth being willing runaways seeking freedom from parental control and social responsibility on the street. Among the most compelling research findings are the following:

  • Many homeless youth do not identify themselves—or even consider themselves—“homeless”. Rather, they see themselves as staying in a variety of “unstable” situations—couch-surfing one night, staying at a homeless shelter for a night or two, sleeping in a car, camping out, even occasionally staying in a hotel with other homeless youth. Defining “homeless” as lacking a stable or permanent living situation encompasses these varied circumstances.
  • Young people between the ages of 12 and 25 who are on their own have been almost completely overlooked by federal, state and local policies and programs on homelessness. Public programs focus primarily on two specific populations: homeless families and chronically homeless adults. Yet the population of homeless youth in the US is estimated at between 5 and 8 percent of the total youth in that age group—about 1 to 1.6 million young people under the age of 18 experience homelessness each year.
  • Almost all the homeless young people interviewed for this project want to find stable housing, get an education, find work, and get off the street. They know their chances of maintaining a job or returning to school while they are homeless are slim.
  • The vast majority did not become homeless by choice; they were pushed into it either because their parents (including foster parents) explicitly kicked them out or because of abuse or conflict in the family. Many young people interviewed expressed the wish that some kind of family support or counseling could have been provided before they were forced to leave home.
  • Almost half of the homeless youth surveyed felt safer on the street than they had at home because of the violence, drug use, or sexual abuse they were subjected to at home. This is an important reason that many of these young people remain hidden—they do not want to be forced to return to an unsafe home. Yet many of them maintain some contact with family members even while they are living on the street.
  • In the last few years, there has been growing recognition of the difficulties faced by one subset of homeless youth: those who emancipate from foster care. State funding has appropriately been made available to provide some supports and services to these youth. Yet while an estimated 25% to 40% of homeless youth emancipated from foster care, the majority of homeless youth were missed by the child welfare system and so are not eligible for the existing public supports and services.

Informing policymakers: lunch-time seminars draw capacity crowds

The second phase of the project was a series of six policy seminars, each focusing on a different issue facing homeless youth. These issues include a lack of shelter and educational opportunities, health and mental health needs, and problematic interaction with law enforcement agencies and the courts. Two of the seminars were convened by legislators, one of whom was moved by what he heard to introduce legislation to require the state to engage in a strategic planning process for addressing the needs of homeless youth in California (SB 1470/465, Lowenthal). Overall, over 400 legislative staff, state department and agency staff, and others involved in state policy attended one or more of the seminars.

Again, perhaps the most unique aspect of the seminars is that homeless and formerly homeless youth were actively involved in the discussions—after much careful preparation to be sure the experience would be positive for them. (See the CRB report by Lisa Foster, Preparing Youth to Participate in State Policymaking, for more information about this.) Each young person who participated in the seminars came with an adult mentor, someone they knew and trusted, and each received a stipend for their participation.

Many participants in the seminars expressed deep appreciation for what they learned, and for the remarks by young people. A number wrote that they had never really thought about homeless youth before and had assumed all street kids were runaways and there by choice. In response to the question “How did attending the seminar influence your thinking about homeless youth in California?”, one participant wrote: “I gained a deeper understanding of the issue, realized that we are grossly underestimating the severity of the situation; began to explore ways my agency can possibly outreach to and engage homeless youth.” Another wrote: “I realize we should not give up on them, that they do want help, but that we need a system that is inclusive and accessible. They are smart and full of dreams, just like other youth.”

In conjunction with the policy seminars, CRB released two additional reports. Patricia Julianelle, JD, a nationally-recognized expert on educational issues and homeless youth, authored the CRB report, The Educational Success of Homeless Youth in California: Challenges and Solutions, which summarizes education requirements and issues, and identifies successful educational program models. In addition, Lisa Foster and a team of interns compiled resources on an ongoing basis that were periodically published in an annotated bibliography. The final product will soon be published as a CRB report, Homeless Youth: Bibliography and Resources.

Next steps

The final component of the project is currently in development: a DVD is being produced by CCYR and youth media that will include highlights from the research and seminars as well as homeless and formerly homeless youth’s recommendations for policy change. This DVD will be distributed widely to state policymakers and others interested in addressing the challenges facing homeless youth.

Thanks to a renewed 3-year $240,000 grant from the California Wellness Foundation effective the end of July 2008, the CRB project team will further deepen policymakers’ understanding of specific barriers facing homeless youth and explore innovative approaches to preventing youth homelessness and assisting youth who are already on the street.

For more information about this project, please contact Ginny Puddefoot or Lisa Foster at the CRB at (916) 653-7843.




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