Homeless Youth Count (And Should Be Counted!)

Next week, volunteers and homeless service providers around the country will venture into wooded areas, under bridges, city parks, and subway lines in order to look for people living outdoors. This nationwide effort is designed to get the best possible “point-in-time” count of people experiencing homelessness – those living in shelters, transitional housing programs, or in places unintended for human habitation – on one given night.

We have seen too often that they will miss a very important segment of the homeless population: homeless youth.

There are many reasons homeless youth are missed in Point-in-Time Counts. Some are complicated and difficult to overcome. Youth may be spending the night with a stranger and are not on the street during the point-in-time count. Many will go to great lengths to avoid appearing homeless and may be reluctant to share their housing status with a stranger. Some youth under the age of 18 may fear child welfare involvement and so they may avoid interacting with people who might alert social service agencies to their lack of housing.

Young people who are out on the streets at night can't always be found in the same locations where homeless adults are found. Often they are not using the same social service programs, and many of those programs do not report data to the community’s Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS).

To conduct a youth-inclusive count, communities will have to modify their traditional counting strategies. But in the meantime, here are some easy steps for communities to implement for next week’s count:

  • Make sure to include youth sleeping in runaway and homeless youth programs.
  • Contact homeless youth providers, including drop-in centers and outreach workers, to get recommendations on where youth who are outdoors can be located.
  • Ask youth who are experiencing homelessness for advice on locating places where young homeless people congregate and strategies to engage them.
  • Vary the time the count is conducted to reach youth during the afternoon hours, when they might be found more easily .

Getting an accurate count of young people experiencing homelessness will be challenging even under the best of conditions. But we cannot even approximate an accurate count if we aren’t even trying.