College of Social Work, Collaborators Work for Accurate Count of Homeless Youth

YouthCount2.0! is Oct. 25 – Nov. 21 in Houston, Harris County

A recent federal report on homelessness indicates, on any given night, nearly 7,000 people are homeless in Houston. Yet the official count of homeless youth is listed between 268 and 3,000.

An effort partnering the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work (GCSW), The University of Texas School of Nursing and the University of Houston-Downtown will use innovative counting and survey methods to secure an accurate count of homeless youth so as to better address their challenges and inform policy.  

“Homelessness looks different in young people,” said Sarah Narendorf, assistant professor in the UH Graduate College of Social Work and a principal investigator in ‘YouthCount 2.0!’.  “They don’t live on the streets the way older homeless populations do, choosing instead to ‘couch surf.’ They usually are not on the streets at night.”

The “YouthCount 2.0!” project, made possible by a grant from the Greater Houston Community Foundation-Greater Houston Fund to End Homelessness, is planned for Oct. 25 – Nov. 21 and involves agencies and volunteers from the GCSW, the UT School of Nursing and across Harris County. Specially trained outreach teams will conduct a count of youth in shelters, transitional housing programs, street churches and vacant apartments across Harris County. Additionally, teams will be in so-called “hot spots,” places where homeless youth are known to gather.

“We will also host magnet events and weekly dinners and ask young people to tell other young people about the count and survey,” she said. “Every young person that meets our definition of unstable housing will be asked to take a survey to gain information about how they ended up in the current situation and learn about their service use and risk behaviors.”

The count of homeless youth is the second phase of this study. Phase one was conducted early in 2014 by a team of researchers that included professor Noel Bezette-Flores, executive director of the Center for Public Service and Family Strengths at University of Houston-Downtown/College of Public Service, and associate professor Yoonsook Ha from the GCSW. Their teams conducted focus groups with recruited homeless youth who were surveyed about sheltering, services they sought out and risk behaviors.

“Our results indicated homeless youth move frequently, separate themselves from each other and homeless adults, participate in risky behaviors and seek help from homeless service providers as a last resort,” Bezette-Flores said. “These youth also indicate a reluctance to disclose their homelessness because of pride and stigma. It was not unusual for them to convey in our surveys that they ‘weren’t like the other’ homeless populations.”

An accurate count of homeless youth builds an accurate picture of the problem. Currently less than one percent of the more than $4 billion spent nationwide on homeless assistance is spent on homeless youth, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.  Narendorf says their innovative counting and survey methods may be replicated in other large, urban cities.

“We need good data to understand this population,” she said. “These youth have experienced trauma, a lack of family support and education; they may have experienced drug use or crime and take part in high risk behavior. We want to know how they came to be homeless and how we can best help them now and prevent this condition in the future.”