Q&A: Matthew Doherty on Ending Youth Homelessness in 2020

Matthew Doherty

Matthew Doherty has worked for 22 years to create housing, services programs, and economic opportunities for disadvantaged communities and households. Appointed last month as executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, or USICH, after three years with the council, Doherty leads implementation of the federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. Called Opening Doors, the plan includes the goal of ending youth homelessness in 2020.

We spoke with Doherty about the perspective he brings to his new job, USICH’s approach to strengthening local anti-homelessness efforts, and the lessons youth-serving organizations can take from federal gains toward ending chronic and veteran homelessness.

[Watch "Looking Ahead: Five Years to End Youth Homelessness"]

National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth (NCFY): You’ve got a lot of experience working with city housing authorities and providing training and technical assistance to organizations on the ground. In what ways do you bring that perspective to USICH’s work to end youth homelessness?

Matthew Doherty: From my work with housing authorities I bring the perspective that addressing homelessness is not one sector’s responsibility alone. At the housing authorities that I worked with, it was clear that we could not fully address the needs of people within our public housing programs or our Section-8 housing-choice voucher programs without strong partnerships with service providers. The only way we can fully address the needs of youth experiencing homelessness, families experiencing homelessness, is through partnerships that leverage the resources but also the expertise and support of a variety systems and agencies and programs.

From my work providing technical assistance I bring the perspective that we can’t expect that those partnerships just happen on their own. They really need to be incentivized and fostered and supported through federal activities. Federal agencies can play a critical leadership role by making sure that on the ground in communities partnerships are being developed. And by making sure that communities have the capacity and the ability to identify how to connect the mainstream resources for housing, employment, child welfare, and other kinds of services and supports with the targeted homelessness assistance programs.

NCFY: What are some of the challenges that communities face in building partnerships?

Doherty: I think there are challenges just in understanding each other’s languages and how to talk with one another. And on-the-ground staff are necessarily focused on implementing their own programs.

A fundamental challenge around youth homelessness is that the responsibility for addressing the housing needs of youth doesn’t rest with any one system. And therefore sometimes our systems allow youth to fall through the cracks. Part of our work at USICH is to foster that responsibility of the mainstream systems of care for ensuring that youth have the opportunity for stability and success. We need to knit those connections together, help each of the mainstream programs and agencies understand the role they can play.

What we’ve seen to be effective in many communities is having an infrastructure or an organization that can bridge across those systems and programs and help identify the opportunities to partner resources, partner strategies. That’s exactly the kind of role that USICH tries to play at the federal level, looking across the efforts of our 19 member agencies and helping them identify their opportunities to strengthen their own progress through their work and partnership with the other federal programs.

[Learn more about Family and Youth Services Bureau efforts to end youth homelessness]

NCFY: Are there lessons from the federal work on ending veteran and chronic homelessness that can be applied to youth homelessness?

Doherty: I think definitely. One of the things helping drive the progress on veteran and chronic homelessness is a focus on data and understanding the scope of the problem and characteristics of people experiencing homelessness. And then at the community level, setting clear goals for progress and driving activities to achieve those goals and being accountable for whether those goals are being achieved.

We’re also seeing progress for creating standardized ways of assessing people experiencing homelessness and then tailoring the interventions based upon those assessments.

For both chronic and veteran homelessness, the focus on housing first has been critical. How quickly can we move this individual or family to housing that is stable and successful and secure for them wrapped around with the appropriate level of services? And how can we remove barriers that prevent people from accessing that housing?

That may look different as we work with youth. It may be less around the quick connections to permanent housing provided by agencies but still providing that quick exit out of homelessness and removing as many barriers as we can. So that we don’t screen out youth because they have greater challenges. Instead, we actually screen in those youth with the greatest challenges and focus on helping them exit the crisis of homelessness as quickly as possible into whatever’s going to be the right setting for them to be living in—whether that’s reconnected with family, whether that’s within an agency’s program, whether that’s out in the community in the private market. But wrapped around with the right level of services. So that it’s successful for them, it’s stable for them, it feels like home for them, and it provides the supports that allow them to use that home for greater progress.

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