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We are pleased to welcome Curtis Porter, the Director of the Division of Youth Services in the Family and Youth Services Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in Washington, D.C. The Division promotes a positive youth development approach to providing program services. Division activities are planned and designed with an emphasis on meeting the developmental needs of young people and their families including runaway and homeless youth, children of incarcerated parents, and youth at risk of involvement with gangs, violence, and drugs. With a programmatic appropriation of more than $165 million, the Division currently provides funding to more than 500 State, local government, community, tribal, and faith-based organizations. Before joining ACF in 1995, Mr. Porter served as the Senior Assistant Director of Volunteer Emergency Families for Children, a statewide host home program for runaway and homeless youth headquartered in Richmond, Virginia. Mr. Porter also served as a member of the Virginia Criminal Justice Services Board and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention State Advisory Group.
Question: How has the current economic crisis affected the number or types of youth experiencing homelessness?

Answer: The economic crisis has hit many American families hard. We know that foreclosures and lost jobs have forced families from all walks of life out of their homes and into motels, cars, or onto the streets. The 2011 State of Homelessness in America report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that family homelessness increased by three percent between 2008 and 2009. That number may not seem very large, but it means that more than 6,000 more mothers, fathers and young people were without a home in 2009.

Because unaccompanied homeless youth are harder to find, data about them are less reliable. We do know that more young people who reach our shelters say they left home because of economic pressures. They either don’t want to be one more mouth for their parents to feed, or they are asked to leave because the family doesn’t have the means to support them. While Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB)-funded basic centers provided emergency shelter to almost 45,000 young people in the last fiscal year, they were forced to turn away 4,221 young people because the beds were full. That’s up from 2,919 the year before.

Question: What are the unique challenges of providing housing and supportive services for runaway and homeless youth, as opposed to homeless adults?

Answer: As the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness pointed out in its Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, unveiled last year, youth experiencing homelessness are often unable to get the services they need because programs are geared toward adults. Youth younger than 18 may not be able to sign a lease, to qualify for some benefits, or to get medical care without a parent’s consent. Many homeless programs serving families with children may not have expertise supporting teenagers, or may even turn a family’s teenage boys away. For these reasons and more, the Federal Government has included youth as one of its targeted populations in the strategic plan.

When it comes to emergency housing, FYSB hears a single message from our grantees: Young people don’t feel safe staying with homeless adults. One grantee told me recently: “When they stay at adult shelters, our youth don’t sleep.” Unfortunately, many communities don’t have youth shelters. This problem is especially acute in rural areas, which may have no shelters at all. In some places, the solution has been to recruit “host homes.” Trained families welcome young people into their homes, giving our grantees time to either reunite the youth with their own families or find them a place to stay over the long term.

Another way that working with youth differs from working with adults: FYSB’s programs have an overarching goal of reuniting families, whenever safe and possible. That means providing family counseling and preventive services that could keep youth from running away or being asked to leave home in the first place.

Finally, runaway and homeless youth are living on their own at a time in their lives when they still need adult support, guidance and understanding. FYSB encourages runaway and homeless youth programs to use Positive Youth Development, an evidence-based approach that nurtures the “protective factors,” or positive influences that can help youth succeed.

Question: The Department of Housing and Urban Development would like to change its definition of homelessness to include unaccompanied youth living in unstable situations. How would a definition change affect services to homeless youth?

Answer: Low-cost housing options are so crucial to the young people we serve at FYSB, but, until now, HUD’s homeless assistance programs have been out of reach to many of our unaccompanied youth clients. Broadening the definition of homelessness to include those young people would make a world of difference in their ability to transition to self-sufficiency.

Question: Often, runaway and homeless youth come from families where the parents or guardians have substance abuse or mental health problems. How do your grantees address these problems at the family level?

Answer: As I mentioned earlier, our emergency shelters are in the business of trying to reunite runaways and homeless young people with family whenever possible. In order to do that, our programs provide individual, group and family counseling to try to alleviate the problems that may have caused a young person’s homelessness. Some of our shelter programs go directly into people’s homes to offer counseling and referrals to substance abuse and mental health services that might prevent a young person from running away or being kicked out in the first place.

: There’s been a lot of focus lately on better preparing youth for independence when they leave the foster care system. What are your grantees doing to better prepare older runaway and homeless youth for adulthood?

Answer: FYSB’s 200 or so transitional living programs across the country provide up to 21 months of housing and intensive life skills development to young people who are unable to return home. Each program tailors its case plans to the needs of the individual young people they serve, but certain offerings are universal: cooking and housekeeping skills, conflict resolution, financial literacy, job readiness, educational support, and parenting classes, as appropriate. Young people who need mental health and substance abuse counseling receive these services on site or are referred to other providers; they’re also referred to health care if they need it. Perhaps most important, youth receive support and guidance from the caring adults employed by our grantees, as well as by volunteers. As a result, many of these young people learn to trust adults for the first time in years. Before the young people leave the program, staff also work with them to develop a comprehensive aftercare plan, so they know what the next steps are in their transition to adulthood.

Question: Some researchers say that as many as 1 in 5 homeless youth identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. How do your grantees address the specific issues, including mental health problems and increased risk for suicide that these young people may face?

Answer: Focusing on the needs of LGBT youth is one of FYSB’s top priorities. Several of our grantees, including Green Chimneys and the Ali Forney Center, both in New York City, and the Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit provide housing and services specifically to LGBT youth, giving them a sense of safety and support they may not have encountered anywhere else. Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco includes, among its dozen housing programs, one tailored to LGBT youth. The program aims to help youth who cannot yet succeed in other transitional housing programs because of substance abuse or mental illness, and provides intensive peer support and adult mentorship. In Minneapolis, Avenues for Homeless Youth runs a host home program geared toward LGBT youth. The program’s one intrepid staff member actively recruits host families from the local LGBT community, providing youth not only with shelter, but also role-model adults who understand what they’re going through. Many of our other grantees have formed partnerships with the LGBT organizations in their communities. These collaborators help reach out to youth, provide training for staff and give our grantees a stamp of approval, assuring youth that the organization is a “safe place” for them.

Question: One of SAMHSA’s strategic initiatives is to prevent homelessness among individuals with mental health and substance use disorders and create permanent stable housing and support services for them. How can FYSB and SAMHSA work together to address this initiative?

: The in-home prevention programs I mentioned earlier, part of our Basic Center Program, provide perfect opportunities to provide substance abuse and mental health services as a way to keep young people from becoming homeless. FYSB and SAMHSA can work together to test the effectiveness of these programs and replicate them. In addition, every day, across America, FYSB-funded street outreach teams are scouring the streets to find homeless young people, many of them already suffering from mental health and substance use disorders at a young age, and bring them in to care. We think, more than anyone, outreach workers hold the answers to how to help these traumatized young people get off the streets and tackle their demons. Together with SAMHSA, let’s ask them.
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