A Night of Fun for Homeless Youth, a Chance to Count Them Better

A young woman holding a clipboard.

As program director for Walker’s Point Youth & Family Center in Milwaukee, Lori Runge knew her city’s annual point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness didn’t tally youth as effectively as it did adults and people in families. But it wasn’t until she read a 2013 Urban Institute report on youth point-in-time counts that she felt empowered to change her city’s approach.

The study highlighted the Youth Count! initiative, sponsored by the Family and Youth Service Bureau and other federal agencies in nine cities to improve the accuracy of the homeless youth tally. The authors noted that the current approaches, including “magnet events” held in places where youth tend to hang out more often than the street, were helpful, but “of limited value as currently designed.”

“The report was a suggestion that things could be done differently for this population,” Runge says. “It told us we could use our imagination. We asked, how do we do this better?”

She contacted her colleagues at Pathfinders, a Milwaukee nonprofit with which Walker’s Point operates a collaborative Street Outreach Program. Together, they designed a new approach for their city's 2014 Point-in-Time effort. In addition to the standard street count, the programs held an all-night event at the Walker’s Point drop-in center with food and social activities.

The event, called Drop After Dark, was meant to attract youth to a friendly place where they could be asked to fill out the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development point-in-time survey. After two more Drop After Dark programs held in July 2014 (Wisconsin mandates an annual summer homeless count as well) and January 2015, the official number of Milwaukee’s tallied homeless young people has more than tripled.

“It’s a more realistic figure,” says Runge. “We’re not getting everybody, but at least we’re getting more than we did. And we’re hoping that in years to come it’ll be more accurate.”

How to Boost Your Area's Youth Point-in-Time Count

Runge and Jay Botsford, Pathfinders’ program manager, share some tips:

Get local support. The Drop After Dark program wouldn’t have happened unless Runge and her colleagues had gotten approval from the Milwaukee continuum of care, which is responsible for holding the point-in-time counts. Runge says it’s important to stress that creative efforts like this help improve count accuracy—and thus, improve funding and services.

“Once the Urban Institute study came out, we were able to explain that we need to do something different,” rather than simply canvassing the streets, she says. “And the planning committee and [continuum of care] agreed. They said, ‘As long as you know what’s right for this population, go for it.’”

Runge and her colleagues still played by the rules, not starting activities until 7 p.m., the start time for the citywide count. They required every attendee to fill out a HUD survey, and they modified the standard survey to include questions about young people’s larger experiences, including violence and drug use at home.  While those youth don’t necessarily qualify as homeless, Botsford says, “We’ve gotten some interesting data from that, and we know that those are indicators for [future] homelessness.”  

Try, try again. Even with all that preparation, the first Drop After Dark was a learning experience. “It was very targeted to, ‘If you’re homeless, come here for the night,’” explains Botsford. “We presented it only as a warming center on a cold night. Only two young people showed up.”

Thinking some young may not have considered themselves homeless, or wanted to be seen that way, Botsford and Runge retooled the event to make it more like the anti-substance abuse lock-ins regularly hosted by Milwaukee-area schools, churches, and youth groups.

“This already culturally exists, and by adapting it, it’s less stigmatizing for homeless youth,” says Runge.

She and Botsford reached out to Drinks On the House, a local advocacy group that holds simulated house parties aimed at teaching youth to resist drinking, who brought the program to Drop After Dark. They got a nearby Chipotle restaurant to cater and held fashion and talent shows.

“We did some art, watched some movies, had a loud area to play music and games,” says Botsford. “Then we made breakfast at 4:30 a.m.”

The fun atmosphere has paid off. This past January, they had more than 30 attendees, all but two of which were counted as homeless.

Involve youth. The improvements to the event were drawn from young people’s own recommendations, and organizers also relied on youth to spread the word and bring their peers to hang out.

“They know where their friends are," says Runge, "and they can explain that, ‘In the long run, it’ll help youth like us’” by garnering more funding for the program.

Most of the 2015 attendees were youth who were already working with Pathfinders or Walker’s Point, but many brought siblings, cousins, or extended family with them.

“Going forward, we’re trying to bring folks in who are not yet getting services,” says Botsford.

9-5 pm Eastern