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Summit addresses issues of counting, understanding homeless youths

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  June 21, 2013 05:20 PM

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Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com

Jim Greene, director of the City of Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission, described the findings of a survey of homeless youths in the Boston area.

Advocates for the homeless called Thursday for more precise and inclusive methods of measuring homeless youth populations in advance of a report from the Urban Institute that attempts to count unaccompanied homeless youth in nine US communities.

Hosted by the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley in partnership with Bank of America, the Boston Youth Homelessness Summit drew more than 60 service providers and funders from social service agencies, foundations, and corporate sponsors in an auditorium at the bank’s Financial District headquarters.

The central theme was that current methods for measuring homeless youths are crude and incomplete, often neglecting the differences in profiles and gathering places between youth and adults who have no fixed place to stay.

“We know it’s pervasive; we just don’t know how deep and of the many forms that it takes,” said Kory Eng, assistant vice president for community impact at the local United Way.

“What we know from programmatic experience, observation, data, and through working directly with youth is that the current homeless service system is misaligned with the needs and characteristics of this population,” Eng said.

The lack of accurate counts and demographic information on these youth means that programs to address their needs are often underfunded and may not be properly targeted to resolving the issues that lead to youth homelessness, Eng and other advocates said.

These obstacles could impede plans by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness to effectively end homelessness in the US by 2020.

Advocates said what is clear is the impact of homelessness on young people.

“Homelessness is devastating for young people,” said Mary Cunningham, senior research associate at the Urban Institute. “We know this really strongly from the research that kids who experience homelessness fall behind in school, have problems with attendance, and as a result have problems with becoming employed and financially supporting themselves.”

Cunningham said young people living on the street experience higher rates of violence, are more likely to be victims of crimes, and often engage in risky behaviors such as substance abuse and what she called “survival sex.”

Boston was one of nine communities around the country that participated in a recent effort to better count and describe homeless youth populations as part of an initiative led by the Urban Institute in partnership with the federal homelessness council and other public and private agencies.

Jim Greene, director of the City of Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission, which coordinates the city’s annual homeless census, said the first week-long, youth-focused survey found 192 local teens and young adults with no fixed address.

Of the 167 on whom the commission was able to collect detailed information, 58 said they were from Boston, 39 from other Massachusetts communities, and 64 said they came from out of state. Greene said the other 6 declined to answer the question.

Of the youth surveyed, 67 identified themselves as white, 54 said they were black, 44 identified as Hispanic, 10 said they were Native American, 4 said they were Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders, 13 selected multi-racial, 35 said they were “other.”

Survey participants could select more than one racial category.

Exactly 100 survey participants were male, 58 were female, 3 identified as female-to-male transgender, 2 identified as male-to-female transgender, and 4 did not respond the gender question.

“Just to give you a perspective,” Greene said, “in our annual point-in-time count, in the adult population about 80 percent are male and about 20 percent are female. So clearly, more young girls and young women in this population, a higher percentage.”

Green said 12 female respondents said they were pregnant, and 36 of the 58 female respondents said they had children, though only 4 had custody.

He said 43 reported that their families had experienced homelessness in the past, and 56 had lived at some point in a group home. He said 47 said they had spent time in foster care, and another 47 said they had been in juvenile detention.

He said that when asked about their sexual orientation, 75 percent identified themselves as straight, 23 percent as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning their sexuality, and 2 percent declined to answer.

Greene cautioned that the Boston survey was not scientific but was intended to “paint a richer picture of the homeless youth and young adults.”

He said many young people without a stable place to stay don’t identify themselves as homeless. Often homeless young people are not living on the streets or in shelters but are “couch-surfing” with friends or relatives for an indefinite period, advocates said.

The Urban Institute’s national report on the nine youth homelessness surveys will be released on July 30.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow Downtown on Twitter: @YTDowntown.

Mary Cunningham.jpg

Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com

Mary Cunningham, senior research associate at the Urban Institute, discussed the need for better data on homeless youth.

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