Bright Idea: Youth Participants Can Improve Point-In-Time Counts

Photograph of three young men talking and laughing while standing outside.

With the federal government aiming to end youth homelessness by 2020, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's annual point-in-time counts have become a crucial tool for understanding just who is homeless in the first place, and where. And young people are taking an active role in that effort. If you'd dropped in on the Los Angeles County count in January, you'd have found about 50 formerly homeless youth taking to the streets to help count their peers.

LA is one of nine sites across the country participating in Youth Count!, a federally funded demonstration project aimed at discovering and sharing best practices for point-in-time counts of homeless youth. Every year since 2007, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has employed a growing number of clients from youth-serving agencies throughout the county. Their 2013 count was the first in which youth counted their homeless peers in all eight of LA's "service planning areas," designated by the authority.

“[Youth] know where the hot spots are,” says Lisa Snyder, senior policy and housing analyst. “So they’re at an advantage over other potential counters.”

Thanks to the young counters, Snyder says, the authority now has a more accurate idea of the number of homeless young people in LA and the parts of the county they live in. And by working with young people being helped by local homeless service providers, the LA youth count has improved collaboration between the area’s many youth-serving organizations.

Here’s how Snyder and her team made their youth-led youth count happen:

Step 1: Engage Youth-Serving Organizations

As Los Angeles County’s foremost funder and coordinator of homeless-serving organizations, the authority asked its partner programs with youth clients to bring two or three on board as counters. While 50 young people were necessary in order to cover each of greater LA’s eight service planning areas, smaller communities could likely employ fewer. Each counter was given a $10 lunch voucher and a $50 gift card.

Step 2: Train the Counters

The count took place from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on January 22. Snyder and her colleagues held a 45-minute training for youth counters that morning at the authority’s offices.

“We began by getting them to understand the scope of [overall] homelessness in LA,” she says, “how the count helps us see if we’re making progress, or how to better tailor our programs.” Then youth learned how to use their tally sheets to count young people on the streets. They also got a rundown of the day’s schedule.

Step 3: Assign Youth to the Areas They Know Best

After the training, each youth-serving agency’s counters got in their own van with a supervisor from their program, who did the driving. Each team canvassed the neighborhoods their organization serves.

“Because LA is so big, one [area] to another is night and day,” Snyder says. “The situation in the Antelope Valley, an hour from downtown LA, is not the same as the situation for a youth on Hollywood Blvd.”

Step 4: Support the Effort

Throughout the day, Snyder and her colleagues stood by at the authority office. “We stayed by the phone, prepared to send someone from our emergency response team if a situation called for it,” she says. Luckily no incidents arose.

“We got a great group of kids,” she says. “They had great attitude, especially when you consider what some of them have been through.”

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