Q&A: Texas Bill Sets in Motion New Effort to Count Homeless Youth

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A group of teens

Texas is one of the biggest states in the union, with some of the country’s largest cities. But outside the state's annual point-in-time count (PDF, 74KB), there’s little official data about the number of youth there who are homeless. That state of affairs is set to change thanks to the recent passage of H.B. 679. The bill will authorize a massive interagency effort to count the number of homeless young people in Texas. A formal report will follow, with recommendations for future legislation and advocacy efforts.

We wanted to find out what this effort will do for the state and its most vulnerable populations. So we spoke with Christine Gendron, executive director of the Texas Network of Youth Services, whose organization helped sponsor the bill.

NCFY: Why is this new initiative important?

Gendron: Nobody really knows how many homeless youth there are in Texas, and Texas doesn’t really offer a lot of services or support for homeless youth. The infrastructure that exists here is primarily federally funded through the [Family and Youth Services Bureau's Runaway and Homeless Youth] Program, and there’s some piecemeal stuff through the state foster care agency. But there isn’t really any state-level efforts for homeless youth specifically.

In order to advocate for that population, we need real data and info on how many youth there are and what their needs are. Obviously there’s a lot that we know through the work our service providers do, and research about the population generally. But it’s not the same as being able to go to the legislature and say, “There’s X number of homeless youth in Texas.”

[Learn how youth participants can improve point-in-time counts.]

NCFY: H.B. 679 was sponsored by Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston. How did his office become involved in this cause?

Gendron: The session prior to this one, we approached Rep. Turner’s office and asked if he’d be interested in legislation related to youth homelessness. Our previous director had served on a committee on homelessness that Rep. Turner had been involved with as well. We knew he had some awareness and interest.

There is also a large population of youth who are homeless in Houston, and Houston has an increasingly strong continuum of care. So it makes sense for a representative from Houston to take this on.

NCFY: Were there any obstacles to getting this bill passed?

Gendron: There was some debate over the definition of homelessness in the bill. Specifically, we debated whether youth who are couch-surfing should count, or youth who are staying in hotels and motels, and ultimately decided that they should.

NCFY: What’s the timetable for this project, and what will actually take place over that time?

Gendron: The bill says a report on this study has to be submitted to the legislature no later than December 31, 2016. And that report has to have info from the study and recommendations for changes and law.  

The [Texas Interagency Council for the Homeless] will take a leadership role in this. But from the beginning we wanted it to be a collaborative project, because Texas doesn’t have one agency that serves homeless youth. The Department of Housing and Community Affairs is involved and Child Protective Services, as well as agencies that deal with Medicaid and food stamps.

The work itself will involve looking at the data we have from the [point-in-time] count, the data we have from school districts, the data that providers have, and [Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration] and national-level data. We want to come up with a really accurate estimate that takes all of these into account.

[View scenes from a 2015 point-in-time count.]

NCFY: And what are the goals once you have that number?

Gendron: We want to improve our data collection measures. And our organization has a lot of info about the needs of this population, but we want to make a formal report to the legislature about that, backed up with figures. We want to see some momentum and change, to improve our network of support for this population. 

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