Invisible youth

Sacramento has no clue how many kids are living homeless

Independent reporting for this story is funded by a grant from Sacramento Emergency Foodlink.

Last week, some 350 Sacramento volunteers took to the streets to count the number of homeless Sacramentans. Called the fifth “biennial point-in-time count,” advocates were hoping to see improvements that would ensure that an adequate number of homeless youth were represented in the results.

Despite increased interest and enthusiasm on the part of Sacramento Steps Forward, the mayor's public-private initiative that works on homeless issues, no new methods were put into place for identifying homeless youth on January 24, the night of the count.

“Tonight, there are no special strategies for counting homeless youth,” admitted Michele Watts, interim director of programs at Steps Forward.

Homeless youth not accompanied by adults are extremely difficult to find. They tend to avoid adult shelters for safety reasons and try to stay under the radar of many outreach efforts for fear of ending up in the “system”—foster care or adoption services. Often, they couch surf with friends or extended family to stay out of the elements at night.

Here in Sacramento, homeless-youth numbers have run far across the spectrum. The last point-in-time count in 2011 tallied a mere 27 homeless children in Sacramento County, but a report by county school districts that same year counted 11,354 children in the county living in homeless situations. And this number doesn't even take into account homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 24.

Just before the last count was set to take place across the nation in January 2011, the California Homeless Youth Project released a startling and damning report: Almost two-thirds of all California counties had no services specifically designed for homeless youth.

Sacramento County stood among the few providing youth services, but the area's three youth-oriented shelters provided just 32 beds in all on any given night.

“What we know here [in Sacramento] is that we don't do a great job as a community in meeting the needs of the homeless youth,” said Watts, who was the lead staffer for last week's count. “We don't know much about them, and that's the first step in addressing their needs better.”

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that some 110,000 youth currently live in the streets in the United States at any given time. Half of them are believed to be between the ages of 12 and 17, and half between 18 and 24.

Shahera Hyatt of the California Homeless Youth Project, which operates under the California Research Bureau, explained that while the homeless between the ages of 18 and 24 are technically adults, they are still classified as youth because they tend to have similar needs and habits as younger unaccompanied youth. Like the younger demographic, many of them also steer clear of services meant for adults for safety reasons, and they are often in need of educational services.

“Since that 18 to 24 group isn't served well by a lot of the programs for chronically homeless adults, it's important for us to know how many there are in our community that require services,” said Hyatt.

Last summer, the Homeless Youth Project released tool kits for communities across the state, which outlined some of the best practices—such as the point-in-time count—for finding and counting homeless youth in surveys. While some of the cities most responsive to homeless youth, such as Los Angeles and San Jose, responded well to the tool kit, most communities across the state did not pay as much attention as the Homeless Youth Project had hoped in the buildup for the count—Sacramento included.

Nevertheless, the area's homeless-youth advocates have begun to come together in recent months. Watts has enthusiastically announced Steps Forward's plans this year to unveil a homeless-youth initiative, though the size and scope of it is yet to be determined.

And last November, area homeless-youth workers met at Wind Youth Services in north Sacramento to discuss future initiatives in helping the homeless youth. This meeting included a representative of Community Link, the group responsible for the point-in-time count's methodology, as well as representatives from local youth shelters, homeless-youth advocates in the county's school system and HYP's Hyatt.

Even so, there is more work to be done. This week, in fact, the same advocates from November's meeting met once more at Wind to solidify plans for dealing with the county's homeless-youth problems.

And, for Steps Forward's part, Watts hopes to see the nascent youth initiative making strides this year.