Improving Data Collection and Data Quality on Unaccompanied Youth Homelessness
Today’s guest blog post is from Adrienne Breidenstine with U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness
Unaccompanied youth are an important, and sometimes, overlooked segment of the people who experience homelessness in our country. At the national level there is neither a current nor a reliable estimate of the number of youth experiencing homelessness in America. Many if not most youth experiencing homelessness go uncounted due to barriers for young people accessing adult-targeted shelters, their lack of connection to most social services, and many youth do not want to be counted. We have some information about youth homelessness through dated national surveys, federal data systems, anecdotal evidence, and a handful of studies in specific places. The information has been used to inform preliminary planning for how to address youth homelessness, but with limited results. We realize an intentional and coordinated strategy for getting to better data is essential to advance our understanding of the magnitude and reasons for youth homelessness and to refine our plan to end it.
In June 2010, the Administration launched Opening Doors, the first ever federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. This plan set the ambitious goal to end youth homelessness by 2020. The goal to end youth homelessness by 2020 is critical because it prompts us to address this problem in new ways by being timely, more creative, resourceful, and by coordinating an approach across agencies that takes into account the developmental challenges for youth transitioning to adulthood.
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), including key staff from the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Education (ED) collaborated to develop a framework for how we will move forward to end youth homelessness in America. In February, USICH released the Framework to End Youth Homelessness. The framework calls on agencies and systems at all levels to work together to improve youth outcomes to simultaneously achieve stable housing, permanent connections, education and employment, and well-being. To reach these outcomes, the framework includes two complementary strategies: 1) improve data quality and collection on youth experiencing homelessness, and 2) build capacity for service delivery.
Improving data quality and collection will provider a clearer understanding of the prevalence, characteristics, and needs of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness. In order to improve data quality and collection the framework proposes three complementary strategies:
- Leverage HUD’s Point-in-Time count to improve strategies for counting youth by enhancing collaborations between Continuums of Care (CoCs), Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) providers, and Local Education Agencies (LEAs) and developing youth-specific methods for counting unaccompanied homeless youth.
- Integrate the data system for Runaway and Homeless Youth Act grantees – the Runaway and Homeless Youth Management Information System (RHYMIS) — with the Continuum of Care data system – the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS).
- Develop a national study that builds on program data and the HUD count that includes household surveys to get to a confident national estimate of youth homelessness.
Taken together, these three things will lead to an ongoing estimate of and better data about youth experiencing homelessness, which in turn will provide a mechanism for monitoring our progress in meeting the goal of ending youth homelessness by 2020.
Efforts to improve data on youth homelessness began with HUD’s 2013 Point-in-Time (PIT) count. HUD’s PIT Count is the main source of data used to track progress against the goals in Opening Doors. HUD issued PIT count guidance that required all CoCs to report on the number of persons in each household type by age category (under age 18, 18 to 24, and over age 24) for the 2013 PIT count. This new data reporting requirement allows HUD to capture more discrete data on unaccompanied homeless youth. In addition, USICH and its federal partners provided key technical assistance to Youth Count!, a community-driven initiative to develop effective strategies for counting unaccompanied homeless youth. The goal of this initiative is to identify promising strategies for conducting: 1) collaborative PIT counts of unaccompanied homeless youth that engage Continuums of Care (CoC), Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) providers, local education agencies (LEAs) homeless, and other local stakeholders; and 2) credible PIT counts that gather reliable data on unaccompanied homeless youth. This initiative will help to inform future national guidance on youth strategies for PIT counts and to foster meaningful partnerships between homeless service providers, school districts, and other mainstream service providers. Results of a cross-site evaluation of Youth Count! will be available in spring 2013.
While improvement of data on youth through the PIT count is critical, we recognize that the PIT has limitations and is not the only source of data on youth homelessness. Complementary methods, such as the integration of data systems and a national study, are also needed and are being pursued to get to a confident estimate of the number of youth experiencing homelessness. USICH, HUD, and HHS are exploring how to integrate HUD’s Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS) and HHS’s Runaway and Homeless Youth Management Information Systems (RHYMIS). Integrating HMIS and RHYMIS will improve our ability to capture more consistent information across federally funded housing and services programs to allow for a better understanding of the continuum of needs, services, and outcomes for homeless youth, families and single adults.
As data professionals we know that the potential impact of improving data quality is abstract to many people and that getting excited about better data can seem wonky, but it is a critical step that will move us closer to ending youth homelessness. Better data will inform the scope and scale of youth homelessness, inform future research, identify best practices and effective models of intervention, and highlight where there are gaps in the service delivery system. Ultimately, it is through the data that we will know when we have turned the corner and are firmly on the road to ending youth homelessness.
Management and Program Analyst,
U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness
 For remainder of this blog post, the terms “homeless youth” or “youth homelessness” specifically refer to unaccompanied youth who are at-risk of or have experienced homelessness.