Broke in Philly

Can Philly count? Advocates say hundreds more young people are experiencing homelessness than the city will acknowledge

Eighteen to 24-year-olds often “couch surf” if they can, and generally avoid agency services.

The city has refused to commit to designate a specific percentage of federal relief funds for youth housing

The city has refused to commit to designate a specific percentage of federal relief funds for youth housing

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
stevevolk

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When Freddie had no home to go to, he avoided as many eyes as he could. He found abandoned buildings where he could squirrel himself out of sight and rest on the hard floors.

At one point, Freddie said, “I slept in the basement of an apartment building every night.”

He’d been in a housing program designed for youths 18 and older transitioning out of foster care. But he said its rules didn’t allow him to make any real progress.

“They wouldn’t let me work and make any money and stay eligible for the housing,” Freddie said. “It wasn’t any kind of life. There was no way to make things any better when I couldn’t work.”

He left and got a job, only to find it didn’t earn him enough money to secure a place to stay. His experience is typical, advocates say: Like Freddie, at least 30% of youth who age out of foster care will experience some period of homelessness, national studies show. Local organizations Valley Youth House and Covenant House, which serves young people at risk of or experiencing homelessness, found 36% to 46% of their clientele had spent time in foster care.

People aged 18 to 24 who wind up searching for shelter do it out of circumstance — not by choice, advocates say, as they pull themselves out of a bad situation and try to find a better one

With no stable home of their own, young people often “couch surf” if they can, crashing with friends. Others, like Freddie, seek abandoned spaces or use SEPTA trains as they try to avoid threats like sexual exploitation.

The phenomenon of how young people hide while homeless is so well known that advocates have devised numerous ways to find and count them.

“Getting an accurate count is vital,” said David Fair, a longtime family and youth services administrator and co-chair of the Philly Homes 4 Youth (PH4Y) coalition, “because that drives everything else in terms of budgeting, and resources, to provide help.”

The problem, Philadelphia youth advocates say, is that the city’s Office of Homeless Services doesn’t do a good job of counting.

The most authoritative tally in Philly, they say, was conducted with the help of an outside agency more than five years ago. It found over 550 youth experiencing homelessness in the city. The city’s official count last year reported about half that number. Numbers aren’t out yet for the most recent OHS effort to find young people without stable homes — known as a “point in time” or “PIT” count — but advocates say it didn’t come close to meeting industry best practices.

“It’s going to be a big undercount,” said Liam Spady, a co-chair at PH4Y who formerly experienced homelessness himself and worked for two years in the Office of Homeless Services.

Spady’s old boss, OHS Director Liz Hersh, and her deputy director of policy, planning and performance management, MaryBeth Gonzales, pushed back on the allegation. They acknowledged fewer people were dedicated to the project this year, but there were still “over 200 people” working on it, Gonzales said.

The dispute underscores the sometimes fractious relationship between Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration and youth advocates represented by PH4Y, a coalition of more than 30 youth-serving nonprofits, including over three dozen people who themselves experienced homelessness.

No commitment on federal funding for youth housing

Money, of course, sits at the center of the issue.

The PH4Y coalition in January filed a detailed request with OHS, asking that 20% of a $42 million affordable housing federal relief package be allocated to services for young people.

The request included outlines for several specific plans: recruiting and identifying landlords willing to rent to young people; hiring of additional caseworkers to help young people find housing; adding funds for preventive services and rental assistance; and other ideas.

But the “No” from OHS officials came quickly, according to PH4Y co-chair Fair, who’s been an activist in the city for more than three decades.

“They have said to us, ‘You’re asking for 20% but young people are only 9% of the city’s homeless,'” Fair said. “And they know that’s an undercount.”

Gonzales and Hersh, the OHS deputy and director, said counts don’t dictate how city resources are spent. Their assessment that people 18 to 24 make up 9% of the city’s homeless population is based on the ages of people accessing the department’s services, not the PIT count.

Youth advocates counter that method isn’t a valid way to estimate the true number of young people experiencing housing troubles — because young people often do all they can to avoid accessing those services.

Freddie, for instance, who asked that only his first name be used, said he resisted any help for months after becoming homeless, because his experiences with city agencies had been “so bad.”

“Youth cannot access services that are not available,” observed Amy Dworsky, a senior research fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, a leading place of research for child, youth and well-being, “and may choose not to access services that are not perceived to be youth-friendly.”

Deriving a count from the number of people who access city services “seems kind of backwards,” Dworsky said. “Who knows how many homeless youth the city is missing using this approach?”

OHS is aware of “the hesitancy of young adults to disclose their homelessness and to access services,” a city spokesperson told Billy Penn, asserting that the office relies on several tools to determine needs and gaps within the community, beyond who receives services: “We regularly meet with people with lived experience, of all ages, while conducting the best data collection possible.”

If OHS won’t agree on dedicating 20% of the American Rescue Plan funding for youth services, what will that $8.5 million be used for?

The overall plan for the money is “still in draft form,” the city spokesperson said. Once accepted by HUD, the city will issue RFPs in developing several areas:

  • Affordable housing
  • Congregate shelter
  • Homeless services
  • Tenant-based rental assistance.

That’s the time for groups concerned about young adults to submit proposals for funding consideration, the city spokesperson said.

Keeping or taking youth out of homelessness situations also serves as an investment in the future, advocates note. It provides economic benefit to society, according to research, saving millions in downstream costs associated with physical ailments, injuries, mental health problems, unemployment, continued homelessness, and crime.

How many young people need services in Philadelphia? As OHS prepares to release its latest numbers, that’s still a matter of debate.

Could this year’s count simply have been skipped?

In August 2016, researchers at Chapin Hall mounted an effort to conduct a kind of gold standard PIT count in Philadelphia for young people experiencing homelessness.

“You simply cannot count young people the way you count the adult homeless population,” said Dworsky, the Chapin Hall senior research fellow.

Adults with no permanent residence, said Dworsky, often congregate in public places and make no effort to hide. A group like that can be found and counted by walking the streets, going to known hot spots and shelters. By contrast, “young people actively avoid hot spots,” and make a greater effort “to hide their homelessness.”

That’s one of the reasons Chapin Hall does not actually recommend PIT counts. Instead, they suggest doing phone surveys of households with people 25 and under. The idea is counterintuitive: To determine the number of young people who are unstably housed, we need to ask people inside stable homes?

The logic, though, is sound. “Young people couch surf,” Dworsky said, “and they stay with friends or relatives for whatever period of time they can, before they have to move on.”

Five years ago, Chapin Hall worked with the Gallup polling service to conduct a national phone survey, yielding estimates that 4.2 million young people between 13 and 25 had recently experienced homelessness.

Chapin Hall’s Philadelphia count, the previous summer, included youth street teams, made of same-age peers to establish trust, who went around the city in multiple shifts. At the same time, several “come and be counted” sites were established, inviting young people to a low-visibility, public place away from adults where they could announce themselves, perhaps fill out a survey, and learn about other programs for help.

The count yielded a result that’s still cited by advocates as the best guesstimate: 569 people under the age of 25 are experiencing homelessnes in Philly at any given point in time.

Best practices from that count informed subsequent annual counts run by Valley Youth House, but the pandemic compromised the protocols.

The count for the 2020 fiscal year, completed before COVID struck, discovered 427 young people experiencing homelessness. Then last fiscal year, according to PH4Y members, the office of Homeless Services started running the count, dictating changes in how it was run in the past, and the pandemic became a factor. The results fell dramatically, returning a result roughly half the Chapin Hall count, worrying advocates that the real depth of the problem was being obscured.

PH4Y advocates criticized the plan OHS pulled together for this year’s PIT count as “fractional, at best,” with just around two dozen workers dedicated to youth outreach — in past years there’ve been over a hundred- and zero youth specific “come and be counted” sites. Instead of 300 or so in-depth surveys, only about 30 were conducted.

Gonzales, the OHS deputy director, rejected the idea that the count wasn’t accurate, while also acknowledging that because of a COVID surge at the time, staffing wasn’t “ideal.”

Youth advocates requested that the city not do the count at all, said PH4Y co-chair Spady. “But OHS insisted on it.”

Gonzales acknowledged that because they conducted a PIT count in 2021, federal rules would’ve allowed them to skip it this year. But Philadelphia is committed to conducting more regular counts, she said, to provide HUD with an annual flow of information.

Fair, the other PH4Y co-chair, regards OHS’s reasoning as self-serving.

“It’s beneficial to OHS to have an undercount,” Fair said, “because it downplays the problem. And that’s the politics of all this.”

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