Advancing Progress Toward Ending Youth Homelessness in the District

Last year, we got a call from a partner organization. They were working with a young mom of one year-old twins.

She’d connected with them to get help finding a GED and workforce program. Despite a lot of clear challenges, this was a young woman they described as highly motivated. She had a sense of agency and determination. She was thrilled when not only was she able to get into a GED program, but they could also help her access the childcare she’d need to make it possible to attend the classes.

At first, things were okay, but over the course of a few weeks things began to deteriorate very quickly. Attendance at school was slipping. Her twins weren’t making it to child care consistently. Things hit a tipping point, and she revealed to her education coach that she had been placed in one of the emergency motel rooms here in the District.

The placement was on a bus line, but the drivers consistently refused to allow her onto the bus with the stroller open. Yet, she also could not hold two squirming one–year-old toddlers safely by herself on a moving bus. By the time this was all revealed she’d had enough absences to lose her GED placement and her childcare slots were at risk too. Her stress, her frustration and her sense of failure were all up.

This example highlights a host of system failures and inefficiencies between how we’ve been able to provide robust case management with such a disparate and often long distance shelter system, and in full disclosure, DHS was very responsive when alerted to the issue. It also illustrates that we have to change how we structure alternative education capacity and how we provide affordable and accessible childcare. It also raised a serious issue of equity in the transportation system. But, at the end of the day, it’s this story and the many others like it that leave me unconvinced that remote shelter settings are always an appropriate response to youth headed households.

We know young people will be best served when we do three things:

First, we must do our best to keep our young families close to their community and social safety net. They also need to be close to the services and resources they need for long-term success (Education or Employment training; their child’s school of origin) and as providers and a system, we need to think more creatively about how we fund and provide resources to make creative alternatives to shelter sustainable and safe.

Second, we must create more upstream prevention and stabilization services that are accessible and welcoming to our families so we can proactively address the issues that we know are contributing to homelessness among this population.

And third, we must invest early in some of the greatest assets our families have: their community and their family — however they define it. Why not try and turn the problem upside down or better balance our investments in shelter with our ability to invest in prevention, stabilization, and meaningful community based support that keeps folks close to those natural and long-lasting supportive resources and critical relationships?

And this isn’t just my opinion. There is an existing, fairly deep and growing body of research that demonstrates by building and fostering the social capital of distressed and disadvantaged communities or individuals, they do better in the long-term. This is not to say we won’t need emergency shelter or other low barrier options. The reality is that for some folks safe options truly don’t exist. But when they do — isn’t it in our best interest to meet folks where they’re at and preserve those resources for folks who do not have safe housing?

The Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act of 2017 is a massive piece of legislation. It is incredibly complex, incredibly nuanced, and is the product of nearly a year of work from stakeholders including the DC Alliance for Youth Advocates. And as always, through monitoring, we must ensure that what we have written in law is implemented in practice. I want to remind people that with high quality implementation, a culture of continuous improvement in practice, and stringent oversight, we can realign our system in a way that truly begins to cut off the pipeline to homelessness among young families. The best way to do that is by investing in meaningful prevention and stabilization services, not by putting more resources in short-term shelter. I am looking forward to continuing to work with DHS and other partners to ensure that the Amendments to the law are implemented and that we continue to advance progress towards ending homelessness for youth in the District.

-Maggie Riden, Executive Director, DC Alliance of Youth Advocates

The DC Alliance of Youth Advocates (DCAYA) is a coalition of youth-engaged organizations, youth and concerned residents formed to ensure that all children and youth in the District of Columbia have access to high-quality and affordable developmental opportunities. They craft policy recommendations, provide structured advocacy opportunities for members and allies, and network and empower youth.