6 Questions to Identify Youth at Highest Risk of Long-Term Homelessness

Young woman standing on a city sidewalk.

“Jeanine” had been living on the streets for more than four years when she came to Northwest Youth Services in Bellingham, Washington. She had gotten involved with gangs and drugs at a young age, witnessed violence, run away from home, and spent time in jail.

Someone in her situation would score four out of six points on the Transition Age Youth, or TAY, triage tool, a new questionnaire NWYS is piloting to determine which youth are most at risk of long-term homelessness without intervention.

Developed by Eric Rice, associate professor at the University of Southern California School of Social Work, the tool uses a welcoming, conversational tone to assess for six experiences that Rice and his colleagues have found are strongly linked to long-term homelessness:

  • Ever having run away from home, a foster home, or group home.
  • Witnessing or experiencing violence at home.
  • Serious conflict with caregivers over religion or other beliefs.
  • Trying marijuana before age 12.
  • Serving time in jail before age 18.
  • Becoming pregnant or having gotten someone else pregnant.

Young people who score a four, five, or six on the questionnaire are considered to be most at-risk of staying homeless. According to Rice, each situation carries about equal weight in the way it influences young people's lives. Specifically, youth are “about two times more likely to remain homeless for five or more years if any one of those key events happens to [them],” he says.

[View an assessment tool for sharing information across agencies to get people the assistance they need.]

Answering the Need

Agencies haven’t always prioritized youth facing the most challenges to receive housing services, or even had a way to know which challenges to look for. Robin Meyer, transitional living program manager at NWYS, says that her staff used to offer housing on a first-come, first-served basis, occasionally moving young people ahead in the list based on dire need.

That approach was unfairly subjective, she says, using limited, anecdotal information gathered by street outreach workers during their conversations with youth.

One Piece of the Puzzle

Rice says the triage tool should be used in tandem with case management meetings and assessments to come up with a service plan along with supportive housing. The Clark County Department of Family Services in Nevada (another agency piloting the tool), he says, has embedded the questionnaire into a two-page screening that also asks about system involvement, major life experiences, and prior experiences with homelessness and housing.

NWYS also plans to start incorporating the tool's questions into their waitlist process this summer. Those questions would come into play during a youth’s conversation with intake staff, Meyer says, after they have filled out an initial application for services and started to develop a relationship with staff members. That approach, she adds, is less invasive for youth, allows the neediest youth to receive help, and allows the agency to be more strategic in how they place youth in housing. 

[Learn more about trauma-informed early engagement.]

Visit the TAY triage tool website created by the Corporation for Supportive Housing, which funds the research behind the tool. You'll find an overview guide, a validity study, a methodology brief, pilot studies, webinars, and more.

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