Homeless children: A new strategy to count an invisible population

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Counting unaccompanied homeless children is a difficult problem.

Advocates know how to count adults: They go through the shelter system. But unaccompanied children? They are often runaways, who stay with girlfriends or cousins or grandparents. There aren’t many resources available to them — and, often, they don’t want to be found. So it’s hard to get a good count.

A good example of this is the “point-in-time” count conducted each year by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. An army of people go out to the streets and try to get a good estimate of the number of homeless people in the state.

Last year, they found just five unaccompanied youth.

Brian Roccapriore

Brian Roccapriore

“If you talk to any youth provider in the state, they see more than five that day,” said Brian Roccapriore, director of the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), which counts homeless in shelters and transitional housing. “That number is obviously wrong, and to such a degree that it’s laughable.”

So in order to find the homeless youth, they decided to employ different strategies, which they put into use this year. We talked with Roccapriore, who is also director of strategic analysis, about the challenges and solutions in counting homeless youth. Here’s an abridged version of our conversation. Questions have been edited for brevity.

Why is it important to count homeless children as opposed to estimating?

So, one of the biggest reasons is: You can’t really start to solve a problem until you know how big that problem actually is. Estimates are great. So far in the state, the only estimates we’ve had have been based on overall nationwide perceived percentages of homelessness amongst unaccompanied children. And I don’t even know what those numbers actually are, because I don’t believe any of them right now.

We have a handful of runaway homeless youth providers in the state that are consistently advocating for more resources, and through the Opening Doors process in Connecticut, there are consistently legislative asks going in for more money for the runaway homeless youth population. And [legislators keep asking]: How many are there? And the answer for many, many years now has been: a lot. But we don’t know what that is.

So this is our first real attempt through the youth count process to get our hands on what that actual world looks like.

And this is just looking at runaway youth, and not youth with families?

Correct. Unaccompanied youth.

Why is it so hard to count unaccompanied youth?

It’s hard to count any kind of hard-to-serve population because of the nature of who they are. Youth, in particular, because in the state, there’s not a lot of services directed toward runaway homeless youth. So if we used the same methods that we’ve been using for years to count the adult population, we’re just not going to get there. Because how we do it with the adult population is through the shelter system and the transitional housing providers in the state — (and that would yield) us next to no results in counting the runaway homeless youth population.

And [the youth] population, itself, is a lot more resilient — and able to find situations where they’ll be able to put themselves up for a couple weeks or a couple months at a time. The couch surfers of the world, who will go and stay with a friend for a couple weeks, a boyfriend or girlfriend for a couple weeks, maybe stay with their grandma. It’s a transient population that hops around that doesn’t really connect to services because they don’t really exist.

How did we previously count homeless children? You didn’t?

Yes, essentially. We were counting the youth in the same way we were counting everybody else. It’s just useless information. It’s just absolutely useless information.

What does the data we currently have tell us about homeless children?

I was actually talking to someone this morning who had worked for a provider in the state who worked with UConn on a study of homeless youth in the state.

But there definitely hasn’t been any estimates or studies done as to what the actual scope is.

There was, about a year and half ago, the report “Invisible No More.” Are you familiar with that?

No, what is it?

It’s a qualitative study on youth homelessness in Connecticut. One of the recommendations of that study was go out and do an actually statewide youth count. So our process was born out of that report. It was partially through the Yale School of Medicine and the Center for Children’s Advocacy. They found 98 homeless and unstable youth, and had in-depth interviews with them about their experiences in the state and why they were experiencing what they were experiencing. But that was only 98.

So, it’s kind of like a chicken and egg problem, where you can’t count them in the same way you’re counting adults in the shelter system — because services don’t exist. But you can’t create shelters because you don’t know how many unaccompanied children exist?

Right. So, other parts of the nation, and HUD — the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development — have identified that our numbers on youth are wrong. They won’t say they’re wrong. They’ll say they may have been undercounted. Because, in last year’s point-in-time count, I think we identified five unaccompanied youth under 18.

If you talk to any youth provider in the state, they see more than five that day. That number is obviously wrong, and to such a degree that it’s laughable. I think everybody acknowledges that. So the question then becomes: How do you go out, and how do you connect with those non-service-connected youth that are sleeping on their cousin’s couch?

So what was the solution for you?

What we did was, in multiple areas of the state, we actually engaged youth in the process.

We just had our wrap-up meeting with our local points-of-contact last week. What worked really well was incentivizing youth to come out and participate in the survey. And if you have a youth who is vouching for an adult who is actually going to be conducting the survey, that goes a long way in getting other youth to come out.

So it’s like the $5 McDonald’s gift card or a toiletry bag. Some form of incentive that is not just “come out and fill out this survey” and then nothing gets done again. You at least get something at the end of it. So that was a big driver in getting youth to come out and fill out the survey.

See the youth survey questions here

And who was completing this survey?

This was youth completing surveys on themselves.

Do you know what the results of the survey were?

We don’t have final numbers yet.

You guys created those incentives and had kids vouching for adults. Were those the only two strategies?

That was one of the best practices that we had found.

In addition to the incentivization, there was outreach that was done in some of the school systems around the state. And each area did things a little differently, because of the complement of programs in the area, the number of volunteers they had in the area — everything was different, depending on where you were. So some of the area soup kitchens, they were conducting the surveys for us and would feed it back to the local leaders. We had some ‘magnet events’ to draw individuals in. So, it was an event in a rec center somewhere or something happening in a ball somewhere. It drew people in to fill out the survey. So there were a number of different methods used, to varying degrees of success around the state.

So you did a survey in the schools?

We had nine high schools in the state participate — not in the street count survey — but in an estimation piece. The youth in the school who took the survey filled it out about individuals they knew. The street count asked individuals about themselves. So the school survey estimated the number of youth in a particular school district.

See the school survey questions here

How do the street counts relate to the school survey?

They’re two different instruments. The overall context was: Do you have the street count conducted? And do you have the school count conducted, to see if we’re kind of in the same world? How well we did in one versus the other.

Do you think you guys will have a decent idea of what the scope of the problem is, once the survey is completed?

Yes. It’s just like with anything involving homelessness, which is what I know best. People ask me all the time, ‘How many homeless are there in the state?’. And there is no silver bullet answer, like there are currently 4,000 individuals who are experiencing homelessness. What we’re going to have out of this is the closest number we’ve ever had to a realistic look at what youth homelessness looks like. And if I’m putting my name to it, I’m going to be confident that the number is somewhere in the ballpark.

Image by Fernand Pelez.

What do you think?