Study: Needs of state’s home­less youth un­met

Groups ex­am­ine root causes that of­ten send teens to the streets

Houston Chronicle - - CITY | STATE - By Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje mstoeltje@ex­

SAN AN­TO­NIO — The needs of home­less and run­away youth in Texas are not be­ing ad­e­quately ad­dressed in the Lone Star State, a study by two ad­vo­cacy groups has found.

The study, con­ducted by Texas Ap­ple­seed and Texas Net­work of Youth Ser­vice, which fo­cus on so­cial jus­tice and chil­dren’s rights, ex­am­ined the root causes of youth home­less­ness, the myr­iad neg­a­tive con­se­quences that flow from it and pos­si­ble so­lu­tions.

Many home­less or run­away youth in Texas have fled foster care place­ments or abu­sive home en­vi­ron­ments or were kicked out by par­ents, of­ten for be­ing gay or les­bian, the study’s au­thors said. Once home­less, these youth are at in­creased risk for a range of bad out­comes — drop­ping out of school, en­ter­ing the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, fall­ing prey to ad­dic­tion and sex traf­fick­ing and strug­gling with men­tal ill­ness.

The study also found that nearly 6,500 chil­dren and teens were ap­pre­hended in 2015 in Texas for run­ning away, with blacks and His­pan­ics over­rep­re­sented among those re­ferred to de­ten­tion.

Last year, Bexar County had the third-high­est num­ber in the state of youth who were re­ported miss­ing to law en­force­ment — 4,645 — most of them run­aways, said Deb­o­rah Fowler with Texas Ap­ple­seed.

As for un­ac­com­pa­nied home­less stu­dents — that is, stu­dents liv­ing with­out a par­ent or le­gal guardian — San An­to­nio In­de­pen­dent School District had the sec­ond-high­est num­ber in Texas, at 537, sec­ond only to Hous­ton ISD, ac­cord­ing to data from the 2014-2015 school year. Stu­dents are iden­ti­fied by staff who are trained to see the signs of home­less­ness, al­though many stu­dents try to hide it for fear of be­ing re­turned to abu­sive homes or placed in state cus­tody.

“There’s also a stigma to be­ing home­less,” Fowler said, who added that home­less par­ents of­ten iden­tify their chil­dren to schools be­cause they want them to re­ceive ser­vices and sup­port.

Lack of fund­ing

The study an­a­lyzed data from a range of sources and in­cluded nearly 200 in­ter­views with young peo­ple who had ex­pe­ri­enced home­less­ness, as well as ser­vice providers in schools, law en­force­ment of­fi­cials, foster care rep­re­sen­ta­tives and oth­ers.

Over­all, more than 16,000 youths in 1,200 Texas pub­lic school dis­tricts were iden­ti­fied as un­ac­com­pa­nied home­less, the most re­cent data shows. Com­bined with ac­com­pa­nied youth, the num­ber of home­less youth grows to more than 113,000 in the pub­lic schools in 2014-15, a 12 per­cent in­crease over the pre­vi­ous school year. The in­crease may arise from bet­ter re­port­ing, the study found.

In a way, this was a “bright spot” in the study, Fowler said.

“This shows many run­aways are still in school, which means Texas has a real op­por­tu­nity to bet­ter in­ter­vene and pro­vide ser­vices, not only with kids who are al­ready home­less but in how to pre­vent youth home­less­ness in the first place,” she said.

A big prob­lem in tack­ling youth home­less­ness is a lack of fund­ing, Fowler said. Na­tion­ally, most funds ded­i­cated to home­less ser­vices come from the U.S. Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment, which has largely fo­cused on veter­ans and other spe­cific pop­u­la­tions, not youth, she said. In Texas, al­most all fund­ing for home­less pro­grams comes from this fed­eral stream, with lim­ited amounts go­ing to home­less youth.

“One of the most star­tling things we found was that no state fund­ing fo­cuses specif­i­cally on serv­ing home­less youth,” she said.

Re­cently, a hand­ful of fed­eral pi­lot pro­grams were launched in ci­ties na­tion­wide, in­clud­ing Austin, each of which use des­ig­nated funds to help home­less youth. Fowler is hope­ful pos­i­tive re­sults from the pi­lots will prompt state law­mak­ers to loosen the purse strings and make fight­ing youth home­less­ness more of a pri­or­ity.

“Non­profit ser­vice providers are re­ally strug­gling to piece to­gether fund­ing from dif­fer­ent sources,” Fowler said. “That’s ob­vi­ously a place where Texas can make a dif­fer­ence.”

They ‘deal with a lot’

The Texas Net­work of Youth Ser­vice, made up of or­ga­ni­za­tions that pro­vide ser­vices to Texas home­less and foster care youth, and a co-spon­sor of the study, could ben­e­fit fi­nan­cially from such a shift in fund­ing pri­or­i­ties, it should be noted. Texas Ap­ple­seed, in ad­di­tion to con­duct­ing data-driven re­search, also files class-ac­tion law­suits on be­half of what it sees as so­cial jus­tice re­forms.

Fed­eral law man­dates school dis­tricts to em­ploy “home­less li­aisons” — staff ded­i­cated to help­ing home­less stu­dents, “but they’re of­ten wear­ing 30 dif­fer­ent hats and not able to fo­cus on the tasks they’re man­dated to do, such as pro­vide youth with coun­sel­ing, hous­ing and other sup­ports,” Fowler said.

Bill Wilkin­son, CEO of Roy Maas Youth Al­ter­na­tives in San An­to­nio, which pro­vides fam­ily coun­sel­ing, emer­gency shel­ter and tran­si­tional liv­ing pro­grams to home­less youth 22 and un­der, said the youth his non­profit serves “deal with a lot of is­sues.”

“Around 40 per­cent of the kids we serve are LGBTQ,” he said. “You’re got kids run­ning away from abu­sive homes, kids who’ve of­ten seen all kinds of trauma. We don’t have a sys­tem in place to han­dle these kids, whose brains are still de­vel­op­ing.”

Break­ing the cy­cle

Youth who turn 18 and are still in foster care, not hav­ing been adopted, “have nowhere to go” at that point in their lives and of­ten end up on the streets, vul­ner­a­ble to vic­tim­iza­tion, Wilkin­son said. (Youths age out of state care at 18, al­though they can opt to stay in un­til age 21.) Bexar County had the sec­ond­high­est num­ber of youths who aged out of foster care in 2016 — 136 — be­hind only Hous­ton, at 163.

Roy Maas does re­ceive a fed­eral grant for the tran­si­tional hous­ing pro­gram, but it’s $200,000 a year, which pays for only half the costs. Wilkin­son must raise the rest through pri­vate fundrais­ing, he said.

Of­ten, Fowler said, home­less youth are de­tained by law en­force­ment for “sur­vival be­hav­ior” — va­grancy, cur­few vi­o­la­tion, pan­han­dling, pros­ti­tu­tion — which pulls them into the ju­ve­nile and crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, from which they emerge more dam­aged than when they went in.

“We need to break this cy­cle, both in terms of im­prov­ing pub­lic safety and for bet­ter out­comes for these kids,” she said.

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