Open Door Policy: An Expert’s Case for Preventing Youth Homelessness
A conversation with Brian Blalock
Tipping Point has committed $100 million to reduce chronic homelessness in San Francisco. A core part of our strategy is to examine and improve points of connection between long-term homelessness and existing public systems, including the justice system, public health and child welfare.
Brian Blalock is Tipping Point’s Director of Law + Policy and our resident expert on youth law. Prior to Tipping Point, Brian founded and directed the Youth Justice Project at Bay Area Legal Aid, providing legal representation and advocacy on issues related to youth under 25. He holds graduate degrees from Columbia, Stanford and Harvard.
Of the more than 2,100 chronically homeless individuals in San Francisco, 19% are former foster youth. We sat down with Brian to discuss the state of child welfare in California and what role philanthropy can play in improving the system.
Tipping Point: Brian, you’ve been a religious affairs consultant, a fight trainer and a teacher. When did you start getting involved in law, and specifically in working with foster youth?
Brian Blalock: I didn’t know any lawyers growing up, but as I got further into my career, I realized that the communities I wanted to serve desperately needed legal representation. When I first got to Bay Area Legal Aid (BayLegal), the organization didn’t really represent kids and there was tremendous need.
So in 2011, BayLegal started working with homeless youth. We built legal clinics in all the youth homeless shelters. We always worked late into the evening there, and would cook dinner with the kids, hang out and watch movies. Over a couple of months, we built rapport. We did what’s called “stated interest representation,” which is where kids tell us what they want and then we advise them. The youth were asking us for things like help getting food stamps, protection against sex trafficking or assistance with healthcare. We advocated for them and we learned their stories. A large percentage of those young people should have been in foster care because they couldn’t go home and didn’t want to go home. But they’d had no court involvement and so were never considered for foster care. Instead, they were homeless.
From there, we began to try to better understand and to fix some of the flaws of the child welfare system. In 2015, my team at BayLegal, together with the Alliance for Children’s Rights, advocated with the State to create a brand new program that would make the benefit amounts the same for relative caregivers. Prior to this, kids in foster care who live with relatives were not eligible for the same benefits as kids placed with strangers, which meant their caregivers got far less money than they needed to raise a kid. And yet statistically, we know that kids placed with relatives do much better — they’re much more likely to get jobs, much less likely to move around to different placements, and much more likely to reunify with their parents. We also worked on making sure all youth in foster care got access to appropriate financial and mental health services.
TP: We know the child welfare system is not functioning as well as it should. What are the biggest challenges we face?
BB: People often ask: are we any better off moving kids who are homeless and suffering into foster care when there are such bad outcomes? I think a good analogy is, “Are we any better off sending someone who is really, really sick to the hospital?” because hospitals get really bad outcomes too. People in hospitals are much more likely to die, much more likely to be sick, much more likely to need surgery and so on. The outcomes, like foster care, are not great because they’re unwell when they get there. But our response is not to make it difficult to get into hospitals and defund them so there are a lot fewer, because we don’t want people to be sick. The logic is ridiculous, these are critical systems of care. We should be inherently dissatisfied with any public system that says, “You should not use me because I am so bad.” And just like we don’t want people going to hospitals for their primary care, we don’t want kids to go to foster care just because the mother needs a drug treatment program. We need to build a system that can be personalized enough to help each young person in the way they need to be helped, and find them the kind of homes and support systems that will keep them off the streets.
There are four big themes we kept hearing as we did stakeholder interviews, looked at data and spoke to kids. First, it’s really hard to get into foster care after age 14. Bay Area homeless shelters house kids with double-digit Child Protective Services reports (each report means that somebody — usually a mandatory reporter like a teacher or a social worker — saw signs of abuse or neglect). Second, even when kids do get into foster care, there are not enough homes for them. We have kids who have federal housing entitlements and funding, but end up living in homeless shelters. Third, we found that around half of youth who are homeless have a mental health diagnosis of some sort. Those diagnoses are usually depressive disorders, psychotic disorders, PTSD or developmental disabilities. These kids are not getting the services they need to stabilize. Despite an increase in community-based mental health services through Pathways To Well-Being, adequate access and coverage is still just not there. Finally, there’s no data system tracking homeless youth in a systemized way. No one knows who these kids are. There is a huge opportunity for cross-agency coordination.
TP: At Tipping Point, you are involved in our commitment to halve chronic homelessness in San Francisco in partnership with the City. How does foster care connect to this issue of long-term homelessness?
BB: Being chronically homeless means you’re homeless for at least a year and have a disabling condition. In San Francisco, 18–24 year olds are 18% of our homeless population and 11% of our chronically homeless. Do you know how hard it is to be under 24 years old and considered chronically homeless? The majority of these youth have experienced abuse and neglect. The ones who need and want the support of the child welfare system shouldn’t face insurmountable barriers to finding safety. If you’re enrolled in foster care at 18, you get guaranteed housing until you’re 21, priority housing until you’re 25, guaranteed health insurance regardless of income or assets until you’re 26, and money for college.
This is not an isolated problem in the Bay Area — the system is so profoundly broken, especially for older youth. The fact that we have the same processes for kids who are two years old and kids who are 17 doesn’t make any sense. A two year old is physically more fragile and may be more likely to die if they are being abused, say, but the 17 year old could be experiencing catastrophic psychological trauma — we need to figure out how to identify and respond appropriately to every case.
TP: What is philanthropy’s role in addressing these issues? In what ways is Tipping Point able to act as partner to the public sector?
BB: Government is somewhat cautious and mindful of its responsibility to its board and its citizens. But through partnering with philanthropy, government can take good ideas and pressure-test them with little to no risk. If these pilots work, then the philanthropic dollars can be phased out and replaced with public dollars, with an eye toward maximizing federal and state dollars. The end result is that a good idea becomes part of the public system, with public funding, sustainable in perpetuity.
The work we’re doing at Tipping Point is systems change. We’re partnering with government, which can leverage public dollars to address the avoidable suffering of vulnerable populations. We’ve long worked with great non-profits who can provide culturally competent, cost-effective services on the ground. And importantly, the voice of the vulnerable populations we all exist to serve is front and center in our planning and execution — we have already hired former foster youth to help us design new services and streamline existing ones, for example. In addition to new programs, our dollars go toward maximizing funding streams for sustainability, establishing mutual accountability, and optimizing the relationships between the sectors.
TP: What gives you hope?
BB: Policy decisions have shaped both the chronic homelessness problem we see today and the current state of our child welfare system — we deinstitutionalized those with mental illness without investing in community-based mental health services; we slashed our federal affordable housing programs; the War on Drugs led rates of incarceration to skyrocket; we eviscerated our safety net through welfare reform. But this also means that if policy decisions got us here, better policy decisions can start getting us back to where we need to be. We can make progress by rooting our decisions in the perspectives and experiences of those we serve. If we can help the public system be more responsive in this way, together we can start chipping away at some of these complex problems that can seem insurmountable when we confront them alone. It’s not going to be quick or easy, but I believe it is possible.
 A chronically homeless individual is defined as a person with one or more disabling conditions who has been continuously homeless for a year or more and/or; has experienced four or more episodes of homelessness within the past three years.  Data from Applied Survey Research, who administered a randomized survey from the larger 2017 San Francisco Point In Time Count.  From the 2017 San Francisco Point In Time Count