In the last few years Philadelphia has seen an increase in the numbers of homeless youth. We aren’t alone—this increase is happening in cities nationwide. According to a Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) report, 5,764 children and youth were counted as homeless in Philadelphia during the 2014-2015 school year. This is the highest number of homeless youth counted in Philadelphia to date. In 2016, Covenant House reported turning away 546 homeless youth in need of shelter. This problem is exacerbated because most homeless youth are invisible: they “couch surf,” sleep in abandoned buildings instead of going to shelters or sleep on the streets. As a result, the numbers of homeless youth in our city are likely much larger than what we are counting.
In 2016, to address this growing crisis, Philadelphia joined other major cities in a project called the 100 Day Challenge to End Youth Homelessness. The 100 Day Challenge initiative was modeled on similar efforts to end veteran homelessness, which were very successful. Over 30 public and private entities, including many legal service providers and advocacy agencies, came together as part of the challenge. The first phase addressed meeting the immediate needs of homeless youth. City Council made available $700,000 to create 50 new shelter and transitional housing beds for homeless youth as well as assistance in securing employment for 75 young people.
The second phase of the challenge included developing strategies to prevent youth from becoming homeless. Because youth who age out of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are over-represented in the homeless youth population, the challenge created subgroups to provide recommendations. Juvenile Law Center, the Defender Association, the Support Center for Child Advocates and Community Legal Services were among the many groups who came together as part of these subgroups to develop prevention recommendations.
The risk of becoming homeless for youth aging out of foster care is disproportionately high. The federal Administration for Children, Youth and Families released a study this year that showed approximately half of the homeless young adults they surveyed reported a history of foster care or other child welfare placement. Of the 1,165 Philadelphia youth who aged out of the child welfare system in 2015, 814 lacked a permanent residence and 950 did not have a source of income support, as tracked by the Pennsylvania Office of Children, Youth and Families.
Juvenile justice system involvement is both a cause and a result of homelessness: youth who are homeless are likely to become involved with the juvenile justice system as they attempt to survive on the street and juvenile justice system involvement can lead to homelessness. According to the federal Administration for Children, Youth and Families in 2016, nearly 62 percent of homeless youth interviewed in 11 U.S. cities had been arrested at some point in their lives, while 44 percent had been in a juvenile detention center, jail or prison. The same federal administration reported that a 2015 point-in-time count in Washington, D.C. found that only 65 percent of minors in detention thought they had a parent or relative they could live with when they were released, while 48 percent said they had been homeless or experienced housing instability before entering detention.
The data and experience shows that if we want to address youth and young adult homelessness in Philadelphia, we must have a child welfare/juvenile justice strategy. The following are several of the recommendations made by the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice subgroups of the 100 Day Challenge to prevent youth homelessness in Philadelphia:
• Increase Services to reunite and stabilize families of older youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Safely returning youth to families that can be their support would go far to prevent homelessness. Reunification with an older youth who may have been in the system for several years requires specific skills and services. We must have structures in place to support the return home and sustain it so that a youth is not on streets soon after a return home.
• Expand the number of high quality family and community-based settings for older youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Older youth need age-appropriate, high quality placement settings that help them prepare for adulthood. Youth in the juvenile justice system also need more community-based placements as an alternative to higher level institutional placements and as a bridge to returning home. Separation from the community and lack of access to practical skill development impedes a youth’s ability to re-enter the community successfully and maintain housing stability.
• Provide transition to adulthood and after-care services to youth after they leave the juvenile justice system.
Youth aging out of the child welfare system receive transition to adulthood services beginning at age 14 and can receive them up to age 21. Youth exiting the juvenile justice system need to have access to the same types of services in the community so they can sustain a successful reintegration and have a place to go for support when they confront challenges. We need to have the capacity to provide services in the community and not push youth back into the justice system to get services. These services should include legal services, such as assistance in getting expungement of their juvenile records since a record can limit both employment and housing options.
• Expand meaningful employment and career opportunities for young adults involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
One of the reasons that young adults are at high risk for becoming homeless when they leave the child welfare and juvenile justice systems is because they do not have the skills needed to secure employment at a living wage. Various city agencies should collaborate to develop a plan to incentivize and increase investments in job and career opportunities for young people involved with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems to address their unique barriers. This should build on the good work of agencies and organizations like Philadelphia Youth Network, the E3 Centers, Power Corps and the Hub at CareerLink. It should also include incentives to provide tax credits to employers who hire youth with child welfare and juvenile justice involvement.
• Redesign the foster care system for youth ages 18 to 21.
While our laws have changed to allow youth to stay in foster care until age 21 and re-enter care, our systems have not changed to reflect that the child welfare system is providing support for transition-aged youth who are adults rather than younger children. If we want to be effective at engaging, supporting and teaching youth, we need to redesign the system so that it is age-appropriate, flexible and reflects what we know about adolescent development. Like parents of transition-aged youth who must embrace the challenge of supporting and teaching young people who want to assert their independence, our child welfare system should encourage youth to remain in foster care until age 21 if they need support. This redesign would include building more feedback loops for youth voice; increasing staffing, capacity,and specialized expertise in transition-aged youth programming and service delivery; and mechanisms for accountability in the achievement of outcomes.
• Increase the number of supportive housing beds and rental subsidies targeted at youth aging out of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
We must expand the investment in supportive housing and rental assistance targeted at transition-aged youth and create programs that serve special populations such as LGBTQ youth, parenting youth and youth with behavioral health needs and other disabilities. Because many of the youth involved with these two systems do not have the safety net of family to rely on, even when the child-serving systems have served youth well, they will need support at age 21, as most young people around the country do. We should provide more opportunities for supportive housing and rental assistance as a planned bridge out of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. We should not force young people into homelessness to access these resources, but build them into our service array.
Adoption and implementation of the recommendations to prevent youth homelessness will require public investment and sustained collaboration between the city and agencies serving our city’s most vulnerable youth. We all have a stake in their successful transition to adulthood. The Juvenile Law Center will continue to advocate for policies and protections that are effective in ending youth homelessness with a particular focus on youth in the justice and child welfare systems. •