Getting Creative with Youth Housing

Two young people walking on a dirt road.

It’s the goal of any program serving at-risk or homeless youth: get young people off the streets and into a safe place of their own. But obstacles are always there, from regional and demographic challenges to a lack of available, affordable housing.

This edition of NCFY Reports addresses those challenges. We learn how one city has brought housing into easier reach thanks to a supercharged network of support. We also look at agencies’ strategies for better meeting the housing needs of rural and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people.

Side By Side: Syracuse's Close-Knit Homeless Programs Work Together to Get Youth Into Housing

A 17 year-old boy showed up to the Salvation Army youth shelter in Syracuse, New York, on the run from a gang in a nearby city. He had no place to go, no friends to stay with, and his mother, who had fled home with him, was seeking her own place in an adult homeless shelter. For Tom Roshau, director of youth services for the Syracuse Salvation Army, the challenge was two-fold: getting a young man acclimated to a new environment and getting him reconnected with his nearby mother.

Luckily, Roshau’s agency is part of a longstanding and close-knit partnership, the Housing and Homeless Coalition of Syracuse and Onondaga County. Started in 1986 to avoid overlaps between the region’s homeless service providers, the coalition has grown into a way for agencies to share resources, give each other ongoing support through monthly meetings, and most importantly, improve housing outcomes for young people and homeless adults.

The young man and his mother, for example, might have been subject to two completely different programs’ requirements and timetables. Instead, they were reunited and placed in housing relatively easily, requiring only a few phone calls between the shelters and a quick coordination with housing agencies.

Every city can create this banded-together approach, and many already do, since the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care grants foster this kind of community-building. But the Syracuse group stands out for both its longevity and interconnectedness. The coalition shares data and intake assessments across nearly four-dozen housing, law enforcement, and treatment agencies, ensuring that any person seeking services is sent directly to the most effective provider in the region.

Constant Contact

Housing options are never far from reach for youth-serving agencies in the city. “The Coalition’s Coordinated Entry Committee works to move the most vulnerable individuals out of our shelter and into our housing programs as fast as possible,” says coalition coordinator Melissa Marrone.

That committee, and a dozen others that make up the coalition, meet regularly, as often as once a month, to share information.

“These are people that I sit across from multiple times a year,” says Roshau. “When there are issues or things to resolve, we’re calling people we’re quite close to.”

Collaboration as Mentorship

One of the hallmarks of the Coalition is the close collaboration it fosters between youth- and adult-serving agencies. This makes for easier family reconnection, as in the case of the relocated mother and son who entered the Salvation Army, because the adult and youth agencies are on the same page and experienced at managing cases together.

Roshau says that since the adult homeless support network is wider and serves more people, service providers from those agencies have often served as mentors to Syracuse’s youth-serving agencies as well.

“They’ve helped us make difficult decisions that defunded programs that weren’t working, or help us redefine a target population,” he says. “As we met monthly over the years, it evolved from a competition [for funding] into a real network of mentor agencies that understand the relationship between the populations.”

As a result, Syracuse’s youth have immediate access to the city’s adult programs once they age out of youth agencies. 

5 Ways to Help Rural Youth Get and Keep Housing

A rural couple sit in front of their home.
When communities are faced with a lack of emergency shelters, a rural host home program can be an effective alternative. The host home model recruits and trains rural households to host youth in their homes in return for a small daily stipend.

When unaccompanied youth seek housing in rural areas, they encounter unique barriers.

From lack of social services to transportation and funding challenges, the needs of rural youth require innovative strategies to help them find and keep housing.

And youth-serving organizations have their own set of challenges. When seeking funding, they struggle to have a client base sufficient for competitive grants. They also have to allocate a disproportionate amount of staff time and energy to transporting youth to and from appointments, due to the long travel distances.

In this slideshow we look at some creative solutions for helping rural youth. For more on serving rural youth, explore these NCFY articles:

“Primary Sources: Addressing Rural Homelessness”

“Youth Speak Out: Shared Experiences Help Rural Youth Leaders Connect”

“Getting Rural Homeless Youth off the Couch and Into Their Own Beds”

“Short Videos by Rural Homeless Youth”

The Do-Over: How A Focus on LGBTQ Youth Helped Improve Residents’ Futures

ACH Child and Family Services is a North Texas-area agency that helps homeless, foster, and struggling youth build stability and independence. A few years ago, they realized a major challenge to their effectiveness: They had little to no programming specifically designed to help lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, a relatively large portion of their clientele. LGBTQ youth often face discrimination when they attempt to get services and housing. They may also have difficulty reuniting with family if their family members reject them because of their sexual identity. So culturally relevant services are key to their ability to leave homelessness.

NCFY spoke with Sean Allen, ACH’s chief analytics officer, who spearheaded the agency’s three-year effort to make their work and space as LGBTQ-friendly as possible, based on the latest research and program recommendations. Allen says ACH is now in a better position than ever to serve every young person who enters their centers and shelters, and that the gains carry over into their ability to find better housing solutions.

NCFY: When did ACH realize that LGBTQ-friendliness was an essential organizational goal? What prompted this change?

Sean Allen: We know from national statistics that a large number (as much as 25 percent to 40 percent) of youth in our target population identify as LGBTQ, and that these youth face unique challenges and significantly elevated risks.

In 2012, our organization formed a task force to improve the effectiveness of our programs and services for LGBTQ youth. The members of that task force were selected very carefully – a combination of volunteers and some who had to be recruited in order to balance out the group. For six months we reviewed the scientific literature and scoured the many excellent best-practice documents. And the next six months we spent on reflection, dialogue, and the development of specific recommendations for the organization to implement in order to improve outcomes for LGBTQ youth and their families. At the end of the year, we were successful in coming to consensus on eight actionable recommendations.

NCFY: How did the program decide on the changes and improvements to make? Was there a key consultant or existing blueprint?

Allen: Our team kept coming back to the research out of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, under the direction of Dr. Caitlyn Ryan. These studies show that the way a parent or other caregiver responds to a child's LGBTQ identity is probably the single most important factor in that child's long-term outcomes. Well-meaning caregivers who engage in LGBTQ-rejecting behaviors (such as denying the child's identity, blocking access to resources, or religious condemnation) are actually increasing risks of suicide, drug abuse, and other very bad outcomes. Whereas caregivers who engage in LGBTQ-accepting behaviors have children whose risk for these bad outcomes is about the same as their non-LGBTQ peers.

With this in mind, we set a goal for our organization to eliminate LGBTQ-rejecting behaviors from all our programs. It's a simple message, easily understood in terms of concrete behaviors which are not allowed in our programs. We provide in-depth training to reinforce this message with all our staff.

NCFY: How does the new focus help achieve housing or residential outcomes?

Allen: First and foremost, providing an LGBTQ-friendly environment increases the likelihood of LGBTQ youth choosing to come to the shelter in the first place. Given the choice between [our shelter] and the streets or couch surfing or trading sex for a place to live, young people must see our shelter as a better alternative. Often LGBTQ youth in particular are hesitant to come to a shelter, given the pervasive discrimination and ill treatment they may have received from other institutions.

Once youth overcome the barrier of being willing to come into our shelter, then we must demonstrate to them that we accept them for who they are. When they enter a new environment, LGBTQ youth tend to scan the environment and pick up subtle cues from staff and other youth, trying to ascertain if this is a safe place to be “out.” They pay attention to use of language and look for LGBTQ symbols in making this determination.

It is our goal to create an environment where all youth feel welcome in our shelter and where LGBTQ youth in particular know they will find acceptance. Otherwise they will not walk in the front door, they will not engage in a meaningful way with staff, they are more likely to run away from the shelter, and they are likely to tell other youth about their experiences at the shelter. As we have taken steps to focus on the LGBTQ population, word has definitely gotten around, and we have seen a positive change in how our shelter and other services are perceived by LGBTQ people.