Last year, the Weitzman Policy team released a policy brief, Through Their Eyes: Examining Youth Homelessness with Photovoice and publication in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health entitled, Understanding the Health and Health-Related Social Needs of Youth Experiencing Homelessness: A Photovoice Study, respectively, to discuss a community-based participatory research and policy project, funded by the Aetna Foundation, that utilized photovoice to assess the health and social needs of youth experiencing homelessness in New Britain, Connecticut. Themes that emerged from this photovoice project were, mental health and substance use, trouble accessing basic human needs, and lack of a social support system. You can read more about it in an AcademyHealth blog post published in March 2022 here as well. Conversely, our team recently published a second paper in Children and Youth Services Review, which qualitatively assessed community and organizational barriers and assets to serving youth experiencing homelessness, with a particular emphasis on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) youth.
A poll from Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics found that almost 75 percent of young Americans believe that being homeless can happen to anyone and were concerned they could become homeless one day. This finding indicates the urgent need to prevent youth homelessness. For this blog, in honor of November as National Homeless Youth Awareness month, we will explore further one of the themes from the photovoice project, youth homelessness and mental health, funding to address youth homelessness, and next steps to further address this issue.
Each year, an estimated 4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness in the United States (U.S.), with 1 in 30 youth ages 13-17 having experienced homelessness in the last 12 months. The Trevor Project estimates that about 28 percent of LGBTQ+ youth reported experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives. Specific subpopulations of youth that face a higher risk of homelessness, include BIPOC, LGBTQ+ youth, and those with experiences of foster care and juvenile detention. More specifically, higher rates of homelessness are seen among Black or multiracial young people who also identify as LGBTQ+. The experience of homelessness has many implications for the mental health of adolescents. Youth experiencing homelessness are more likely to struggle with mental health issues, including reporting suicidal thoughts and attempts. They are also more likely to have a history of diagnosis of major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorder.
Recent Initiatives from Cities and States Addressing Youth Homelessness
Various cities, counties, and states across the United States (U.S.) are embarking on new initiatives geared towards addressing homelessness among adolescents.
Denver, Colorado was awarded over $2 million dollars to address youth homelessness in their city. The federal funds awarded will be used to provide housing and wrap-around services. This is in addition to other efforts and funding the city has in place to address homelessness in the general population, such as programs that conduct mental health evaluations with people experiencing homelessness as a means of identifying needed health and social services to support their mental well-being.
Fulton County, Georgia, will be awarding $1 million dollars across 16 organizations with a track record of dedication and commitment towards combating homelessness and serious issues among youth. The county has made it clear that programs awarded funding deliver services that meet the unique needs youth are experiencing that place them in danger of experiencing homelessness.
In Minnesota, lawmakers have made historic funding allocations towards initiatives aimed at ending adolescent homelessness throughout the state. Lawmakers recently approved $41 million for the Homeless Youth Act state fund, $30 million more than the last biennium and the largest increase since the funding was first awarded more than 15 years ago. Part of the motivation behind the funding allocation was the growing homeless population among youth seen in the state. The state’s most recent reports estimate that about 4,900 youth were at some point homeless on a given night, with the state having only 100 youth shelter beds that same year (2018).
Based on our most recent research policy work on youth homelessness at Weitzman, in addition to our own experiences of providing direct services to youth and families experiencing homelessness, we offer the following recommendations:
Ensure adequate funding for evidence-based mental health programs and services tailored towards youth experiencing homelessness: The Biden-Harris Administration recently announced more than $200 million to support youth mental health. Although the funding supports programs that connect youth to behavioral health services and expands access to mental health in schools, it falls short of explicitly acknowledging that youth experiencing homelessness are at higher risk and have a higher prevalence of mental health challenges compared to their housed counterparts. Nonetheless, given the unprecedented investment in youth mental health, and several acknowledgements throughout the document of the need to focus on “at risk” and “underserved” youth, this new funding could be an opportunity to expand the mental health services provided to youth as part of the Transitional Living Program (TLP), which provides long-term residential services to youth experiencing homelessness.
Incorporate lived experiences in the development and implementation of related policy, programs, and research focused on this public health challenge: Incorporating the voices of youth who have/are currently experiencing homelessness, in program planning, including prevention and implementation efforts, is key. The Photovoice project led by staff from the Weitzman Institute showed just how much insight youth experiencing homelessness can bring to policy solutions. Similar partnerships and initiatives centering the lived experiences of youth experiencing homelessness in the development of interventions, as well as in the allocation of resources targeting youth experiencing homelessness, to ensure that these efforts are appropriate and aligned with what this population needs.
Apply theories and frameworks to research that better capture the nuances of youth experiencing homelessness: As noted earlier in this blog, youth experiencing homelessness that identify as both BIPOC and LGBTQ+ are disproportionately impacted by both homelessness and mental health disorders. These, and other similar findings, highlight the need for more research that leverages intersectionality, critical race theory, and queer theory, all of which have profoundly shaped today’s scholarship by calling attention to how historical and present-day injustices contribute to the ongoing challenges experienced by marginalized communities, as we’ve previously noted in our paper. Such scholarly efforts have the potential to develop more targeted interventions and policies that better meet the needs of these populations.
If you would like to learn more about the Photovoice project, please visit our website: https://www.weitzmaninstitute.org/photovoice/