CHIP — “The numbers are in from Indianapolis’ census of homeless youth. Here’s what we learned”

Holly V. Hayes, Indianapolis Star, April 7 2019

New information released by an Indianapolis homelessness prevention group is shedding light on the status of the city’s homeless youths.

Data analysis released by the Coalition for Homelessness Prevention and Intervention revealed that young people experiencing homelessness are disproportionately African American and that nearly half reported having a serious mental illness.

The Youth & Young Adult Point-In-Time Count was conducted on Nov. 7, 2018, and is considered a snapshot of the city’s unsheltered population age 25 and younger. Outreach teams found 183 youths and young adults were experiencing homelessness.

It’s only the second such count conducted in Indianapolis, so it’s too early to establish trends, but gathering the data allows for researchers and public and private entities to better tailor resources and outreach to address the community’s needs, said Chelsea Haring-Cozzi, the coalition’s executive director.

“Just like any point-in-time, it’s a snapshot,” she said, “and so it gives us a place to start, to say we know more than just a gut feeling or, anecdotally, we have some data to back it up, and to then start to target and direct resources to address the need.”

What is a point-in-time count?

A broader point-in-time count, part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care, is considered a census of a city’s homeless population, sheltered and unsheltered, one night at the end of January.

These numbers are not intended to represent the city’s homeless on an average night, but give local and federal authorities a snapshot used to steer funding, develop programming and tailor outreach.

However, unlike the January point-in-time count, the young adult count is not mandated by the federal government. Indianapolis’ first youth point-in-time count was conducted in July 2017.

The youth point-in-time, or PIT, count addresses potential gaps in the data collected in January, which captures adults and families experiencing homelessness and may not otherwise include unaccompanied young people. 

However, unlike the January point-in-time count, the young adult count is not mandated by the federal government. Indianapolis’ first youth point-in-time count was conducted in July 2017.

The youth point-in-time, or PIT, count addresses potential gaps in the data collected in January, which captures adults and families experiencing homelessness and may not otherwise include unaccompanied young people. 

But it has gaps of its own, Haring-Cozzi said.

“When we look at, for example, those that identify as transgender or are part of (the) LGBT community, they may not be captured as representatively in the youth PIT because there aren’t as much options where that community necessary feels safe going into current shelter or living unsheltered.”

What we learned

Some of the major takeaways from the report include:

  • A majority of the youth counted (65 percent) were African American, while 24 percent were Caucasian.
  • More than half were male, 41 percent were female and 6 percent were transgender or gender-non-conforming.
  • Nearly 90 percent of those counted were sheltered in emergency facilities, transitional housing or safe havens. 
  • Forty-six percent reported having a serious mental illness and 24 percent reported having some form of disability.
  • Nearly half were unemployed, and 61 percent lacked a high school diploma.

The 2018 youth count saw an increase of 96 from the year before, when 87 young people were counted. That uptick is the result of a change in methodology, Haring-Cozzi said. With the inaugural count in 2017, the homelessness prevention coalition held an event and asked young people to come share their experiences with homelessness. But that methodology didn’t come close to capturing the scope of the problem. 

“While some came out, we realized that we really didn’t kind of capture a lot of the youth that might be experiencing homelessness and that we really needed to go to where the youth were instead of asking them to come to an event or come to us,” she said.

Much like the January count of adults and families, the 2018 youth count was conducted by outreach teams that connected with youths at area agencies, transitional housing and shelters and referred to federal data that identified the needs of homeless students.

Better methodology results in better data, giving officials a clearer view of the issue and allowing them to more appropriately address it. 

Research has shown that homeless youth are at a higher risk for abuse, sexual exploitation, violence, substance abuse and various health issues, including anxiety, depression and suicide. Young adults are also more likely to put themselves at risk or in dangerous situations to find housing, which increases the likelihood of trauma, Haring-Cozzi said. 

“What we see is kind of a higher vulnerability, particularly around domestic violence, in terms of human- and sex-trafficking … there’s increased vulnerability and increased likelihood of trauma when they’re experiencing homelessness,” she said.

What happens next

The racial disparity among Indianapolis’ homeless youth mirrors that of the overall point-in-time count —  more than 50 percent of each count was reported to be African American. 

“There’s a racial disproportionality in terms of who is experiencing homelessness that I think begs the question of discrimination in potential housing options or employment options that is worth looking to, in terms of risk factors,” Haring-Cozzisaid. 

It also opens the floor for further conversations about how to best reach and serve homeless LGBTQ teens and young adults,she said. 

Certain efforts are in place to address their needs. Trinity Haven, Indiana’s first transitional home specifically for LGBTQ youths, will open in the Mapleton Fall Creek area this summer. 

Similar to the city’s five-year plan to address chronic adulthomelessness, the Indianapolis Continuum of Care has launched a plan to also address youth and young-adult homelessness that would include foster care changes, easier access to legal records, medical services and substance abuse treatment and changes to high school graduation fees and exemptions. 

Better understanding the needs of homeless youth allows for early intervention and could help put a stop to sustained homelessness.

“I think that there are these indicators that, if we could intervene earlier on and start to look at potentially some of the structural barriers, particularly for youth and young adults, we could potentially kind of break the cycle of homelessness for those that eventually become chronically homeless,” Haring-Cozzi said.

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