In the District’s ongoing battle against homelessness, even the most aggressive efforts have often overlooked teens and young adults – a particularly vulnerable segment of the community – allowing them to slip easily through the safety netting of shelter services.  However, with the launch of Solid Foundations DC on May 19, an Interagency Council on Homelessness Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Youth Homelessness, the city hopes to help vulnerable teen and young adult populations before they need shelters.

Focused specifically on the needs of unaccompanied youth, Solid Foundations DC, according to Mayor Muriel Bowser, will serve as a roadmap for building an effective system for caring for young people at risk for homelessness.

“Ending homelessness in Washington, DC has been a top priority of mine from day one,” said Mayor Bowser in a statement. “The health, safety, and long-term success of our youth will have an impact on our entire community, and our D.C. values require that we continue finding ways to make homelessness in DC rare, brief, and non-recurring. By working together, we can build integrated systems that provide the support our young people need to stay healthy and succeed in school and life.”

This year’s statistics indicate a 21.8 percent reduction in the number of families experiencing homelessness; 10.5 percent reduction in the number of persons experiencing homelessness; and 2.7 percent reduction in unaccompanied individuals compared to the 2016 results, according to the District’s 2017 Point-in-Time Count report of homeless people in the city released on May 10.

Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) Director Kristy Greenwalt said the initiative has a goal of ending youth homelessness by 2022 by addressing key intervention methods specific to the needs of young people, using a data-driven method.

“For years, we have had some very strong youth-serving nonprofit service providers in our community, but we haven’t been functioning as a comprehensive system of care,” said Greenwalt. “The work undertaken to develop a youth coordinated assessment and referral system for youth, to plan and carryout the annual census, and ultimately to shape all of this information into a comprehensive plan has brought stakeholders together in a new way. This has been important, because we know that government alone can’t end homelessness—it will take all of us working together.”

According to data from the National Network for Youth, many factors contribute to the overall number of homeless youth each year, but common reasons are family dysfunction, exiting the child welfare or juvenile justice systems, and sexual abuse. Research has shown that 21 percent to 42 percent of runaway and homeless youth were sexually abused before they left their homes, and that as many as 28 percent are forced to engage in ‘survival sex’ in exchange for food, shelter or money.

DHS Director Laura Zeilinger told the AFRO that the city initially did not focus on unaccompanied youth because it didn’t have the data necessary to make thoughtful policies and programs, but can now better assess, and connect resources to youth through the Point-in-Time count – an ongoing data collection system that tracks housing needs against availability and access. Coupled with social services, Zeilinger said better outcomes are possible.

“We have interventions, like the Transition Age Youth Rapid Rehousing for those 18-24, because stable housing is the foundation for everything else in people’s lives.  But we also focus on the fact that many youth may not have the support of parents who can help them manage independent living,” Zeilinger told the AFRO. “They are paired with roommates and supports that will help them live within the community.  It is also an age group where we begin to see behavioral health conditions emerge in young adults and can catch it, it means we can potentially prevent them from spending years on the streets.”

According to the report, the Bowser Administration has invested more than $106 million in the construction and preservation of more than 1,200 housing units in the last fiscal year. Since taking office, Bowser has launched new homeless prevention services which have prevented a shelter stay for almost 3,000 families and increased investments in permanent housing programs by nearly 60 percent, developed interim eligibility to provide immediate shelter for families in urgent need, and connected more than 1,800 veterans to permanent housing.