THE BLOG
09/27/2013 04:51 pm ET

Homeless Youth: Our Future Leadership Unless...

Three years ago the Miami Coalition for the Homeless launched a Youth Homelessness Prevention Initiative to raise awareness of the increasing numbers of young people living in homelessness in our community. In 2012-2013, Miami-Dade County Public Schools reported that more than 6,477 students (of that number, 311 were documented as "Unaccompanied" youth, meaning that they are alone) experienced homelessness; the number has been increasing in each of the past five years. Children, teens, and young adults face homelessness not just as a result of poverty, but also as a result of neglect/abuse by family members or foster care placements which are unsuccessful, and also due to rejection by family members when a young person questions his or her sexuality. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, citing National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children, more commonly known as the NISMART, there are over 1.6 million homeless youth living in the United States today.

Yet for many communities across our nation, including Miami-Dade County, decision-makers and funders have not always understood the extent of this problem -- in part because our shelter system has included youth as part of the single adult population and children have been considered part of the family population. Unfortunately, communities now realize that those types of shelters do not meet the needs of many youth as there are many more unaccompanied young people who are not comfortable in an adults-only shelter and who are not members of a "family." These youth want to remain invisible. They fear being stigmatized or bullied; they also fear that they will be taken into custody. Additionally, their psychological development is at the stage where they genuinely believe that they are able to take care of themselves, somehow, someway.

As the above number from the Miami-Dade County public school system substantiate, there are homeless youth in our community who we believe deserve to receive services and support. Thus, the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, in partnership with the Miami Dade Homeless Trust, a recognized national leader in addressing homelessness, decided to conduct the Community's first youth count (census) in August 2013. Our goal was to learn from this experience, and to find the most effective methods of reaching out and connecting with these youth and young adults so that we could better understand their needs. This initiative would also begin to prepare us for the future when it is likely that a comprehensive Point-In-Time count (a census conducted on a particular day each year) will be required by USHUD as to un-sheltered and unaccompanied youth in our community.

This pilot count engaged many community partners, including fifteen other local youth-focused organizations, the University of Miami, and -- importantly -- youth themselves. This broad coalition of service providers, youth advocates, and community leaders undertook extensive research and analysis of best practices implemented in other communities in the United States, and we engaged in focus groups with youth and young adults in an effort to learn what they considered to be the most effective strategies and outreach techniques to connect with their peers. We created a mass marketing campaign engaged in significant outreach and on the day of the count, we trained and coordinated over 100 volunteers to reach out and connect with unaccompanied youth living without shelter throughout our community.

We had modest expectations for this census, as we had learned from our colleagues in other communities that this was the expected result -- this population is extremely difficult to count. Our volunteers walked, sat, and talked with 100 young people, ages 14-23, that day, each of whom completed a brief survey. One example of the young adults that we encountered included the discovering of three young women living in their cars with their small children, one of whom we later learned was a straight-A student at a local school. Our community volunteers were inspired by this effort, and found new energy to dedicate themselves toward a solution that meets these young people where they are and helps them grow into adulthood with a sense of hope. We are still undertaking the analysis of the data collected, yet we already have a better understanding of specific instances of homelessness.

Prevention of youth homelessness is a moral imperative for us as members of a community, and there are proven approaches to reducing youth homelessness which we can all embrace. Individuals can become powerful advocates either for better systems and resources, or can serve as a friendly adult to a young person needing some stability and encouragement. Communities can embrace proven strategies, for example, please see "Framework for Ending Youth Homelessness," published by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, or "An Emerging Framework for Ending Unaccompanied Youth Homelessness," published by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

We also believe that youth homelessness prevention is a wise investment toward our community's financial success. Respected studies have documented that when children and teens experience homelessness they often are unable to complete their education or maintain their health and safety so that they might mature into independent adults. Communities ultimately will face increased numbers of adults in homelessness if those communities fail to address the causes of youth homelessness. We encourage more communities to explore whether or not they are prepared to address this issue in their community, and we welcome your questions as to our process and work in Miami-Dade County. As a nation, we all will do a great service to our future by focusing on the youth and young adults of today.