Q&A: How Ending Veteran Homelessness Can Help Homeless Youth

Matthew Doherty signing documents to help end homelessness.

Last month, mayors across the country received praise for accepting the challenge to end veteran homelessness and named Los Angeles as a city continuing to work toward that achievement. When Los Angeles meets its goal, it will join other cities across the country—including Houston, Las Vegas, and Philadelphia—whose veterans experiencing homelessness are quickly identified and connected to services or housing.

The nationwide challenge stems from Opening Doors, a comprehensive ;federal strategy to prevent and end homelessness. The first-of-its-kind blueprint set a goal for ending veteran homelessness in 2015, chronic homelessness in 2017, and family and youth homelessness in 2020.

We spoke to Matthew Doherty, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), for a two-part series on supporting the goals laid out in Opening Doors. In part one, we talk about the recent efforts around veteran homelessness and how they will inform future strategies for unaccompanied homeless youth.

NCFY: What are some of the key takeaways from USICH’s work on veteran homelessness?

Doherty: One of the important areas that is helping to drive the progress on veterans is a strong data-driven focus. We’re making sure we’re looking at the data to project the needs and the number of people expected to experience homelessness and the scale of resources necessary to respond to those needs. It’s also been critical to make sure we’re focusing all the federal resources and investments into some of the strongest practices [for supporting those experiencing homelessness], especially moving towards a housing first orientation.

One aspect that has been critical to success is defining what it means to accomplish the goal [of ending veteran homelessness] and developing criteria and benchmarks. When communities know what they’re aiming for, they have a clearer sense of the kind of changes they need to make within their current practices and systems. 

[Get tips for sharing data about youth experiencing homelessness.]

NCFY: How will you connect those lessons learned to identifying and serving unaccompanied homeless youth?

Doherty: We are developing additional strategies to strengthen the 2017 point-in-time count [of people experiencing homelessness] that communities will be performing. We also are providing more guidance to communities about how they should use all of the different data sources available to understand the needs within their communities. This will allow them to better predict  what resources will be necessary to respond to their individual needs.

We’re also thinking through how housing first strategies are effective for youth and focusing on removing barriers to the programs and services that are appropriate to meet each youth’s unique needs and will put them on a path to self-sufficiency and permanent housing.

And, having seen how effective it has been on our work to end veterans homelessness, we are working right now with other federal agencies on defining what it means to effectively end youth homelessness at the community level, as well as laying out the criteria and benchmarks that a community needs to be aiming for in order to know that they have accomplished that goal.

[Discover how ending youth homelessness is a call to action 40-plus years in the making.]

NCFY: It seems that more federal agencies may touch the lives of homeless young people compared to homeless veterans. How does that fact impact the country’s work to end youth homelessness, and how will USICH Chair Sylvia Mathews Burwell, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), help foster collaboration?

Doherty: Some of the fundamental differences around the progress on veteran homelessness were the investment of federal and community resources and also that the [Department of Veteran Affairs] effectively wraps around a whole range of services for veterans in communities. So, I think it’s really important to figure out how to link the mainstream systems of care that many of these families and youth are already interacting with and have them play even greater roles in being a part of their community solutions to youth homelessness.

With Secretary Burwell serving as chair and [Department of Education] Acting Secretary [John B.] King [Jr.] serving as our vice-chair of our Council, we think there’s a really great opportunity this year to focus on HHS-funded systems like the child welfare system, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs, behavioral healthcare systems, school systems, and other services and supports in communities. We know that targeted homelessness resources alone aren’t enough to end youth homelessness, so tapping into these resources is essential to achieving all the goals of Opening Doors. 

Learn more about USICH's guidance on implementing a coordinated community response to end youth homelessness.

And don’t forget to check back with us in a couple of weeks, when we’ll be publishing part two of our interview!

Photograph courtesy of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness website.

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