Op-Ed: Connecticut must identify and help its many homeless children

Central to the mission at Partnership for Strong Communities is to build the political and civic will to prevent and end homelessness. As such, in 2013, the Partnership’s Reaching Home Campaign, partnered with Yale University and the Center for Children’s Advocacy to publish “Invisible No More,” the state’s first-ever comprehensive look at youth homelessness.

Researchers interviewed 98 young people who are homeless in Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, New London, and lower Fairfield County and found some disturbing numbers.

Op-ed submit bugA third of the youth had dropped out of school. Sixty percent reported that their average income was less than $100 a week. Forty-nine percent reported moving more than six times in their lifetime.

Most are couch surfing or staying with others first periods of time. Eighty-nine percent of the youth said they were sexually active, with multiple partners. Nearly 24 percent first experienced sexual intercourse at age 12 or under. Trading sex for a place to sleep was not uncommon.

These youth are often unconnected to any kind of services, although 37 percent had been removed from the home by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) at one point and 53 percent had had contact. If they stay in school, they are challenged to do well there.

They have trouble finding and holding jobs, and their unstable (or worse) housing situation leaves them vulnerable to the most deleterious forms of victimization, including sex trafficking.

But simply collecting numbers is not enough. We are under no illusion that there are just 98 youth who are homeless in Connecticut. In fact, we believe the number to be much higher. National estimates range from 500,000 to 1 million kids.

An Aug. 22, 2014 CT Mirror story, “Report: DCF must do better at tracking kids who ‘age out,’” highlighted the state’s deficiencies when it comes to children who reach age 18 and leave state care without family connections.

The story sprang from a Feb. 6 report by the bipartisan Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee focused on state Department of Children and Families. The concern of advocates and others was that youth who age out of the system without proper support all too often become homeless.

That is our concern, as well, particularly considering the paucity of services available once a youth falls into homelessness.

In our research, we found that just four Connecticut private agencies provide crisis housing intervention, respite services or street outreach to this population — and those are all concentrated in one area of the state. None are in Hartford, where the January 2014 Point In Time census counted 20 percent of the state’s homeless population.

Tellingly, in the entire state only 15 shelter beds are available to youths under age 18.

The governor and legislature recently approved our request for $1 million to bring much needed crisis services to Hartford and other areas of the state. We will work with state partners to build upon and expand these services, which will depend greatly on our ability to develop more adequate data on the scope and nature of the problem.

Reaching Home Campaign partners have worked to design a statewide count based on national efforts to better identify and understand youth experiencing homelessness. That count is slated for January 2015.

While the state is on the verge of ending chronic homelessness, we must be vigilant to avoid the creation of a future generation. We need to take the responsibility for helping these kids. But first, we need to meet these kids, assess their needs, and figure out the most efficient way of providing for them.

Without a system such as that, the state will continue to see younger and younger people among our homeless population.

Alicia Woodsby is executive director of the Partnership for Strong Communities, a statewide nonprofit housing policy and advocacy organization that seeks to prevent and end homelessness, expand affordable housing, and build strong communities in Connecticut.

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