“Nothing About Us, Without Us” – Ending Youth Homelessness

Youth and young adults lead the way in new action plans in the City of Boston and across Massachusetts focused on ending homelessness.

Speaking to a room that includes the Mayor of Boston, members of the City Council, the media, human services providers and corporate leaders isn’t easy at any age.  But when Pippin recently stood at the podium at the Downtown Crossing offices of Bridge Over Troubled Waters to talk about youth homelessness, he rose to the challenge.

“There is something inherent about being young and homeless that sends you a message that you are worth less,” he said confidently.  “Think about it, when you see someone else that is the same age as you that has a nice place to sleep and you don’t, that makes you ask, why don’t I deserve a place to sleep too?”

Many young adults like Pippin, who have lived with unstable housing, are strong and resilient because of the challenges they have faced in their lives. While celebrating all they have overcome, it is imperative to address the issue of youth homelessness, understanding that experiencing homelessness causes trauma. The adverse childhood experiences homeless youth have experienced produce lasting negative impacts on the developing adolescent brain, affecting skills like decision-making, planning and reasoning. One study from the University of Chicago estimates that each night on the streets increases a young person’s chance of future homelessness by 2 percent.

According to the 2019 City of Boston annual homeless census, 325 youth and young adults are either sleeping in Boston’s shelters or on the street on any given night.  Their focus is on survival — instead of building the knowledge, relationships and skills they will need to thrive as adults. Statewide, over 730 youth and young adults meet the state’s definition of homelessness, according to the 2018 Massachusetts Youth Count report.  The report notes that youth and young adults are most likely to become homeless because of family conflict, abuse or neglect, or feeling unsafe.

“We have always had a voice, it’s just that now people are listening.” – Pippin, member of the Boston Youth Advisory Board

Last year, Governor Baker released a plan for ending youth and young adult homelessness with a $3 million commitment to 10 community partners.  Funding went to United Way partners such as Father Bills & Mainspring, Lynn Housing and Neighborhood Development, and Community Teamwork in Lowell.  The Massachusetts plan included interviews and focus groups with homeless youth as well as feedback from state and local providers. Continued active outreach is critical to ensuring housing unstable/homeless youth are no longer “hidden.”

Funding is being used by the community partners for housing, transportation, education and case management support. Each region has developed a winter response for youth who are without housing during the cold months as well as specific strategies to address the unique needs of undocumented, unaccompanied youth.

Providing locally-targeted, comprehensive and coordinated support to young people experiencing housing instability is the focus of Rising to the Challenge, the new action plan released recently by Mayor Marty Walsh, the City of Boston and United Way aimed at ending youth and young adult homelessness in the City of Boston.

“We all have an obligation to do more to help young people in our region who are homeless and isolated from their families,” said Michael K. Durkin, President and Chief Executive Officer at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. “By bringing the right people and partners together, we can do this in Boston. United Way looks forward to rising to the challenge to ensure all youth and young adults at risk of, or experiencing homelessness, are on a path toward stability and economic mobility.” 

United Way is honored to support efforts to end youth homelessness across the region, but when youth see themselves leading the change,  the results are even more powerful.

In Boston, the plan is the collective result of input from the Youth Action Board, the City’s advisory group of youth and young adults, who have experienced homelessness or housing instability, together with 240 community members representing more than 110 public and private organizations. The input from youth with lived experience in homelessness critical to addressing the issue effectively.

“The message from the very beginning is ‘Nothing about us, without us,’ which is a very different message than we are used to hearing,” said Pippin. “When you involve the people experiencing homelessness, you are telling them they have something good and important to say, that they know what they are talking about, and they can bring good, positive change to their community.   We have always had a voice, it’s just that now people are listening.”

The Rise to the Challenge plan has four core strategies:

  1. Ensure collaboration and coordination among city departments and community partners
  2. Improve early identification and outreach to connect youth to services
  3. Increase access to and effectiveness of current services
  4. Invest in new housing and service resources

In order to provide housing to all unaccompanied youth age 18-24 who are experiencing homelessness, the report shows that the City will need to add 285 new dedicated housing opportunities within the next three years.  The U.S. Office of Housing and Urban Development recently awarded a $4.7 million grant to support the creation of 157 housing opportunities through non-profit partners to meet the needs of the youth and young adults experiencing homelessness by offering services tailored to each individual’s needs.

Stepping up for students

The Baker-Polito Administration also noted a growing population of homeless students enrolled in the state’s colleges and universities, and launched a new pilot connecting them to support.  The Massachusetts Student Housing Security Pilot is providing dorm rooms to homeless students attending community college. The Pilot launched at four campus sites in January of 2019 in partnership with local community colleges and has expanded to include participation and support from 16 public community colleges and universities.

Each of the four-year institutions made up to five beds available for students experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. The program was expanded in the Fall of 2019  to include an additional two campus sites in partnership with community colleges, and funding from EOHHS and the Department of Higher Education is now supporting a total of 30 beds.  In addition, the Department of Higher Education and EOHHS are partnering with the Department of Housing and Community Development to support 11 students in a state and federally funded single-room occupancy project in Malden to house homeless students from Boston-area colleges.

Our Administration has taken a targeted approach to address homelessness across the Commonwealth over the last several years, and this pilot program serves as another important tool,” said Governor Charlie Baker at the launch of the pilot. “We look forward to working with our community colleges and state universities to implement this program to give students a stable place to live so they can thrive academically and have access to the necessary supports in their own communities that will help them continue their path to self-sufficiency.”

“The Baker-Polito Administration’s plan to end youth homelessness provides a road map for preventing and addressing the needs of youth who are housing unstable or homeless,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders. “Critical to the plan’s success is strong interagency collaboration and partnerships with private non-profit agencies such as United Way.  These partnerships are essential in helping us leverage expertise and resources to address the housing and service needs of homeless youth.”

In Essex County, United Way is engaged in helping ensure the state plan reaches every small city where homeless youth seek support. This year United Way and EOHHS will co-sponsor a professional development program for nonprofit professionals from youth-serving organizations and shelters to hone their skills for best supporting positive housing outcomes for youth, including presentations from youth and industry experts in youth development and housing.

*Featured Image Courtesy Photo from Boston Youth Advisory Board. Read about their truths and values here.