By Liz Montaquila
On December 12, 2012, with the direction of Mayor Thomas Menino and community leaders, over 300 volunteers took to the streets for Boston’s 33rd annual homeless census. But this was not just a normal homeless count for the city of Boston. For the first time, Boston and 8 other cities participates in a Youth Count.
In addition to Boston, the other communities (or Continuums of Care) that participated in The Youth Count were; Cleveland, Ohio; Hennepin County, Minn.; Houston, Texas; Los Angeles; New York; King County, Wash.; Washington State and Winston-Salem, N.C.
The Continuum of Care (CoC) is a geographic area that receives funding from the CoC program to serve people experiencing homelessness within that area. The King County CoC is one area that participated. The rest of Washington State participated as the other site. Often times in rural areas a CoC will cover the rest of the state (called Balance of State). Washington BoS was the other site.
View Youth Count Sites in a larger map
“We really were shooting for geographic diversity amongst the sites,” said Adrienne Breidenstine, a management and program analyst for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). In addition to geographic diversity, the USICH also looked to diversify the sites in terms of whether it was an urban, suburban or rural site.
“And also their overall capacity,” added Breienstine. “We know some sites are really, really good at doing a point-in-time count … like Boston. And we know some other sites need to improve their point-in-time count.”
The required 2013 homeless count provided the perfect opportunity to learn from these communities how to go about counting homeless youth, a process that could possibly be adopted by all Continuums of Care for the 2015 count.
One of the important things to recognize in conducting these unique counts said Breienstine is that just as homeless youth cannot be treated with the same types of services that homeless adults require, a different tactic is needed for counting them as well.
Bob Pulster is the USICH’s regional coordinator for the state of Massachusetts. Much of the success in coordinating Boston’s Youth Count he says is due in part to Robb Zarges, executive director of Boston’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters, an organization that offers services to homeless, runaway, and high-risk youth.
“They had teams that were going out on the street engaging more with youth, trying to get a better sense of their situation,” said Pulster. These efforts included administering a survey to homeless youth found on the street or in programs.
The Urban Institute is currently analyzing the data collected in the count, and a cross-evaluation of the nine sites is being conducted. Breinstine stressed that although the numbers and data collected from the sites will be of interest to them, the focus in collecting this data will be placed on process. This includes answers to: what did each site do differently to plan for the point-in-time count? What specific strategies did they use to engage youth on the night of the count? How did they ask youth about their experience being homeless (via the administered surveys)?
“We know that you can’t just ask a youth if they’re homeless because some of them are homeless but don’t identify as being homeless. So [we’re] looking at all these different processes and hopefully we’ll learn and see how the sites…what sites did what, and if they were really effective strategies for the point in time count. “
The initial analysis of the data revealed that approximately 191 unaccompanied homeless youth were identified in Boston on the night of the count.
Additionally, the data revealed a troublesome increasing trend of homeless numbers in the city of Boston. The grand total of all homeless increased 5.1 percent in 2012 compared to the previous year. Similarly, the total individual homeless adults increased 4.6 percent and the total of all homeless families also increased by 7.8 percent between 2011 and 2012. The one area where Boston saw improvement over the past year was the improved access to longer-term Residential Substance Abuse Treatment, which provides important treatment and recovery services for homeless adults suffering from addiction.