Q&A: Samantha Batko of the National Alliance to End Homelessness on Counting Homeless Youth

United States map with homeless people on it.

In the quest to end youth homelessness, every young person counts. But estimating the number of homeless youth in the United States has been a challenge.

A big step forward was taken in 2013, when for the first time the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual “point-in-time count” broke out as a separate age category 18- to 24-year-olds experiencing homelessness. In prior years, there was only an 18 to 30 group.

Every January, HUD asks communities to spend a single night counting homeless people living in shelters. In odd years, people living on the streets, in cars and abandoned buildings, and so on, are also counted. The estimate, though flawed, gives a snapshot of the magnitude of homelessness in the United States.  

In 2013, communities across the country counted a total of 46,924 unaccompanied minors and young adults experiencing homelessness. They made up nearly 8 percent of the overall homeless population.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness, in Washington, DC, earlier this year included that data in “The State of Homelessness in America 2014.” We talked to Samantha Batko, director of NAEH’s Homelessness Research Institute, about why we need a more accurate estimate of the number of homeless youth and what it will take to end youth homelessness.

NCFY: We’ve heard time and again that we need a more accurate estimate of the number of unaccompanied homeless youth in this country. What are some specific ways a better number would help NAEH and local service providers in the work they do?

Batko: An accurate estimate of the number of youth who are homeless on a night can help a jurisdiction develop the right amount of emergency shelter, transitional housing, other housing options for youth. And it can help Congress and the administration also make decisions about where they direct federal resources that are dedicated to this population.

Going beyond just the point-in-time count estimates, what we know about youth is that most of them are going to go home to their families or another adult that cares about them. But youth sometimes need help reconnecting with their family and they’ll possibly need a place to stay while the family connection is being made. Those interventions—the place for them to stay and the family reconnection activities—have costs. Better point-in-time counts and other sources of data are essential elements that help create an estimate of how many interventions you’ll need. And that becomes a crucial part of planning a systemic response for ending youth homelessness.

Additionally, regular and accurate estimates of the number of youth that are experiencing homelessness allow us to evaluate progress. Every day in this country providers in different communities are helping individual youth exit homelessness. But without metrics to measure changes on a mass level, it’s impossible to determine if we’re actually ending youth homelessness.

NCFY: How have people responded to the point-in-time estimate of the number of homeless youth?

Batko: Even though it’s generally acknowledged that this is probably an undercount, there’s no reason not to argue for more resources for this population, even just given the number that we’ve counted right now.

There were nearly 6,200 unaccompanied minors experiencing homelessness on a given night in January 2013. Housing inventory charts from the same time period show only 4,000 emergency shelter and transitional housing beds dedicated to households comprised of only children.

So, the numbers might not be accurate, but we don’t even have enough resources for the number we have. So that’s a starting point. We can at least start housing the youth that we’ve already identified.

NCFY: Looking to a future when we _do_ have a reliable estimate of youth homelessness in the United States, what will be next?

Batko: Next is a little bit of a misnomer. I don’t think we wait for next. Ultimately, solving youth homelessness requires two things. The first is that we’re going to need the resources to scale for the number of youth that exist. So that’s the counting side of things.

The second is that we need effective interventions. If we have an accurate count and we know the ultimate scale of resources and interventions we need, but we don’t know what’s actually effective in ending homelessness for youth, we still can’t end homelessness in the nation. We need to be evaluating the effectiveness of interventions for this population.

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