Over the last year, there has been a dramatic expansion in the number of rapid re-housing (RRH) programs designed to serve youth. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded over $15 million to RRH providers focusing on implementing the intervention for youth. And already in 2017, HUD’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP) has awarded funding to 10 communities to build systems intended to end youth homelessness, supporting a wide range of housing programs including RRH.
In 2016, the Alliance conducted regular online meeting of providers, system leaders, and technical assistance specialists from around the country in an effort to better understand best practices for using RRH to end youth homelessness. This Rapid Re-Housing for Youth Learning Community provided an opportunity for peer learning and served as an outlet for the Alliance to gather more knowledge about best practices from experienced youth RRH providers and to understand challenges that communities face when implementing youth RRH. All six of the Learning Community’s online meetings are available for viewing.
*Before moving forward, let’s define youth in the RRH context! We are referring to young people who are 18 and older. Minor youth under 18 require different interventions for several reasons, not the least of which is their inability to sign a lease in most states.
What we learned from the RRH for Youth Learning Community:
1. RRH can totally work for youth!
Some concerns that we often hear about RRH for youth are that we don’t have evidence that the intervention works for this population or that it is not “developmentally appropriate.”
But we actually do have evidence that youth RRH works: There are programs all around the country that have been doing it for a while now and getting great results! For example, the experienced youth RRH providers who participated in the Learning Community all reported that on average around 90% of youth served in RRH did not experience a return to homelessness within a year. And there’s no reason to think that homeless youth in the communities that have successful youth RRH programs are somehow more developmentally capable of independent living than homeless youth in places that haven’t been doing RRH.
Ultimately, regardless of what the four walls look like, services and support are what are most effective in helping young people overcome homelessness. Great services and support help young people stabilize their situations, problem solve, connect to both caring people and resources in the community, and develop the skills they need to achieve the goals that are important to them. And as we learned from the great youth RRH providers who presented on their programs during the Learning Community, it’s absolutely possible to do all of that in the context of RRH!
2. RRH for youth is hard! (And fun! And maddening! And rewarding! And hard!)
RRH is a Housing First intervention that allows people experiencing homelessness to direct their partnerships with housing programs from a place of strength and autonomy rather than from a place in which all the power resides with the program. Young people deserve that kind of partnership as much as anyone else experiencing a housing crisis. Following the Housing First philosophy in the youth context is definitely a new experience for many of us, and making a change to that approach, like making any change, can be difficult.
But all of the great RRH for youth providers we’ve gotten to know through the Learning Community have told us repeatedly that embracing Housing First has been key to making their RRH programs work. They also all agree that shifting organizational philosophies was hard, especially for front line staff. Ultimately, though, they found it rewarding and even inspiring to approach their work with youth from a place that puts the burden for engagement on them as providers—to make services engaging for youth—rather than on young people to prove they want to engage. As one of the experienced providers who was part of our Practice Knowledge Project put it, “If you make it engaging, they will engage!”
3. Hold the hope.
Another point that experienced youth RRH providers made repeatedly was that just believing young people can succeed in RRH makes a big difference. One provider shared an inspiring insight in response to the concern of another Learning Community member that putting youth in their own housing with RRH was just “setting them up to fail.”
We just can’t go into the work that we do from a belief like that because so often the people we serve have been through so many struggles that they may not have any hope left that their lives can be different. It’s up to us to “hold that hope.”
That hope, that belief that young people can succeed in RRH as long as we support them and provide them with the services and connections they need, seems to be vital in ensuring youth success in the model. And it’s that hope and belief that makes RRH such an exciting and innovative approach to youth homelessness!
4. RRH for youth is different. (But maybe not as much as we think…)
We learned a lot over the course of the Learning Community about the practical nuts and bolts of implementing RRH for youth. Yes, youth are different from older adults experiencing homelessness, but we should keep in mind that in some ways they’re not that different. Many of the lessons we’ve learned from implementing RRH for other populations also apply in the youth context, such as:
- The importance of landlord engagement (and having a housing specialist if you can)
- Client-led and -directed case management and the need to tailor services to the individual; and
- The importance of connecting clients to mainstream resources to ensure stability after RRH assistance ends, especially education, childcare, and employment supports.
There are, however, specific tweaks for youth in RRH that we’ve learned about within each core component:
- First-time tenants. When thinking about the first core component of RRH, Housing Identification, it may be important to educate landlords about youth development or work to address other potential housing barriers such as a lack of employment history or bad credit history. Young people may also need more up-front support in learning about being a good tenant and about rental agreements and leases.
- Length of financial assistance. Youth are, on average, probably going to need financial assistance longer than older adults who are further along in their employment journeys. When considering the second core component of RRH, Rent and Move-In Assistance, be aware that the assistance may also need to be more flexible since a young person’s employment income may be more sporadic, especially when they first move into their own housing.
- Intensified support. The third core component, RRH Case Management, may need to be more intense for youth than it usually is for other populations, especially in the beginning. That makes sense because youth may have never lived on their own and may need a lot more support as they learn how to navigate that independence. Case management in youth RRH also needs to be super flexible, meeting young people where they are (literally and figuratively) and seeing mistakes as learning opportunities for both youth and staff rather than as reasons to exit youth from programs.
Through the Rapid Re-Housing for Youth Learning Community, the Alliance has learned a lot more about the hard work and dedication of providers who have demonstrated how youth can succeed with RRH. RRH is a great Housing First intervention for young people. It builds on the strengths of both youth and providers to spur innovation and create positive outcomes. And there is already a great wealth of practice knowledge in the field that can be harnessed to scale up the intervention, getting young people experiencing homelessness off the streets and into their own housing in the community, wrapping youth-led services around them, making supportive connections for them to resources and champions, and creating flow through our homelessness systems so that we’re able to serve even more youth.
And to continue to build upon the momentum and enthusiasm for this innovative systemic response to youth homelessness, we’re gearing up to create a second RRH for Youth Learning Community! If you’re interested in participating and have ideas for what the Learning Community could be for both providers and systems administrators, let us know. Contact Mindy or Jen!