Why count youth in California?
As is the case across the nation, California’s youth experiencing homelessness are often undercounted and ignored. After the 2013 PIT count, we knew our state had a high rate of unsheltered homeless youth and students, and that communities needed help to improve data collection for these youth. So, funded by the California Wellness Foundation, we formed We Count, California!, a statewide project to support communities in better counting and describing their homeless youth in the 2015 PIT count. We Count, California! is the product of the collaboration between the California Homeless Youth Project and the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.
Our project consisted of three main stages:
- First, we provided technical assistance across the state. In the spring and summer of 2014, we conducted day-long trainings, where CoC members, youth service providers, school homeless liaisons and key stakeholders gathered to learn about and improve youth count techniques. Thirty-two of our state’s 39 funded CoCs took part. Further support was offered through $2,000 seed grants to pilot youth count activities and a Google Group sharing youth count information.
- Second, we provided in-depth technical assistance to two low-resource, non-urban communities, Yolo and Kings/Tulare. These grantees received additional funding and technical assistance for activities like developing youth-friendly focus groups, volunteer trainings and using an app-based survey tool.
- Third, we worked to promote structural change on the local, state and federal levels to support improved data collection about youth.
What did we learn?
In many of California’s smaller communities, planning the 2015 count marked the first time that youth providers sat at the table in partnership with their local Continuum of Care members. Creating this space laid the groundwork for ongoing, meaningful collaboration, not only on the PIT count, but also on other planning and programmatic activities.
Communities across the state made incremental improvements through activities like conducting youth focus groups, hosting youth count events with food and games and engaging youth through library systems and other non-traditional youth providers. These efforts helped to build capacity for future counts and develop collaborations that will affect how communities serve their young people.
Engaging youth in the planning and counting process can make a huge difference to a count’s success. After all, youth are the experts in when, where and how youth will best be engaged in a count. Eliciting youth input on count plans can help to ensure that counts are respectful, youth friendly and reflective of diverse experiences.
A number of communities used their PIT count as an opportunity to collect locally relevant data about their youth populations, in addition to meeting the data standards laid out by HUD. This allowed them to ensure that local programming is informed by data and by the needs of youth in their communities.
Despite best efforts across the state, we believe that PIT-eligible TAY and unsheltered minors will continue to be undercounted. In considering our lessons learned in California, here are a few recommendations moving forward:
- On the local level, continuing to develop partnerships with those who touch upon the lives of youth experiencing homelessness is critical. Service providers from outside the traditional umbrella of homeless services – like libraries, youth development agencies and schools – have existing, trusting relationships with youth and can be key partners in helping to improve youth counts.
- On the regional level, states may be a missing link when it comes to coordinating efforts to address youth homelessness. States may consider examples set here in California and in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maryland, where models have been tested to provide funding and coordination with communities who are often under-resourced and need support to implement youth-specific count activities.
- On the federal level, requirements around the methodology and definitions of the Point-in-Time count continue to present significant challenges to youth inclusion. Continued political and fiscal support for youth counts moving forward will be critical to improved youth inclusion.
This year, We Count, California! saw communities across the state move toward improved youth data, but it is clear that there is still much work to be done. It is only through working together that we can achieve the goal of ending youth homelessness, here in California and beyond.