Cleveland County nonprofit joins national count of homeless youth
NORMAN — About a year before he graduated from Norman High School, Kyle Carter was having problems at home.
Carter, then 17, said his mother and stepfather fought all the time. Sometimes Carter would find himself getting into fights with his stepfather. After a while, Carter decided he would be better off moving out on his own.
For the next few months, Carter fell into a category that homeless advocates call "couch homeless." He didn't sleep on the street, but he stayed on friends' couches and in guest rooms without a permanent place to call home. When a counselor asked him about what was going on at home, he didn't want to talk about it.
"I didn't want to feel like a charity case or anything like that," Carter said. "I didn't want to get made fun of. I didn't want to be talked about."
Carter, now 23, eventually enrolled in Bridges, a program that works with homeless youth in Cleveland County. The program gave him a place to live and helped him finish high school and develop skills he would need to succeed after he graduated. But until he enrolled in the program, no one would have known Carter was homeless unless he told them.
Now, a national policy research center is partnering with organizations like Bridges to find a better way of finding students like Carter and connecting them with services designed to help them get off the street.
Chapin Hall, a research institute at the University of Chicago, is launching the Voices of Youth Count, a nationwide effort to develop methods for identifying and helping homeless people ages 18 to 24. During the program, Chapin Hall will partner with organizations in 22 counties across the country to count the homeless youth in those counties. Bridges is the institute's partner organization in Cleveland County.
Bryan Samuels, executive director of Chapin Hall, said organizations will begin conducting the surveys in the next few months, with results expected by the end of 2016.
The program relies on currently or formerly homeless young people to help advocates find and count other homeless youth. Students in organizations like Bridges will help connect researchers with homeless young people in the communities where they live.
Samuels said he hopes those young people will help researchers do a better job of finding homeless people ages 18 to 24 — a cohort that represents a "blind spot" in the advocacy system, Samuels said.
Each year, homeless advocates and service providers in cities across the country conduct so-called point-in-time counts, in which workers tally the number of homeless people living on the street and in shelters on a particular day. But advocates have long acknowledged that those surveys don't do a good job of counting younger homeless people.
That blind spot exists for a number of reasons, Samuels said. But perhaps the largest problem is that younger homeless people simply don't act like older homeless people, he said.
Younger homeless people are more likely to stay on friends' couches rather than sleeping out on the street or in shelters, he said, and they're not as likely to use services offered to homeless people. So methods like canvassing homeless encampments and going to shelters might work well for counting older homeless people, they aren't as effective when it comes to tracking down homeless youth.
Debra Krittenbrink, executive director of Bridges, said the students in her program generally follow that trend. They're often embarrassed about the fact that they're homeless, she said, and they try to fit in and keep their situations secret.
"They're much more reticent about getting any kinds of services," she said.
Research also suggests younger homeless people end up homeless for different reasons than their older counterparts. While advocates say addiction and mental health issues are among the main drivers of homelessness among adults, most homeless youth have either been pushed out of their homes or run away, he said.
According to a study released last week by the federal Administration for Children and Families, 51 percent of homeless youths told researchers they had been asked to leave home. Only about 30 percent of those surveyed said they could return home.
While they may be reluctant about seeking assistance from government agencies or other organizations, younger homeless people are often quick to turn to their friends for help, she said. Homeless youth tend to be excellent at networking, she said, and information about where to find food and a safe place to stay generally gets passed by word-of-mouth.
Krittenbrink said those social networks likely will help Bridges students do a better job of finding other homeless young people than outreach workers might do.
"My kids know where other homeless kids are," she said.