Recommendations for Counting Homeless Youth and Surveying Their Needs

Participants in a point-in-time count.

Counting and Surveying Homeless Youth: Recommendations from YouthCount 2.0!, a Community–Academic Partnership” (abstract). Sarah C. Narendorf, Diane M. Santa Maria, Yoonsook Ha, Jenna Cooper, Christine Schieszler. Journal of Community Health (June 2016).

What it’s about: Researchers Narendorf, Santa Maria, Ha, Cooper, and Schieszler participated in a community effort not only to count homeless youth, but also to survey these young people about their health needs.

[Learn what types of messages motivate homeless youth to meet their health needs.]

Over a 4-week period, the project counted 632 and surveyed 420 youth. Because homeless youth have been historically difficult to count, the research team tried both old and new methods of finding young people, using recommendations from a prior YouthCount! study. Afterward, the team compared success rates of each method.

Why read it: To make it possible to fund services, it is important that local communities have a count and a needs assessment of runaway and homeless youth. However, unaccompanied young people are often transient and hard to find. This study was one of the first to document expansion of the number of locations and times for counting homeless youth.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Narendorf et al. made observations about the success of the following aspects of the count and survey process.

Study processes. Extending data collection to last four weeks made it possible for researchers to reach more homeless and unstably housed young people, but it also increased the possibility of counting a person more than once. To avoid this, the study used consistent teams in the same geographic area who visually identified youth and asked whether they had already responded to the survey.

Data collection. While the survey compiled by the community was over 100 questions long and took 15-20 minutes to complete, most of the participants (94 percent) completed it. Youth answered tough questions about prior trauma and sexual behaviors at a high rate.

Recruitment Strategies. The study found a number of participants who would not have otherwise been identified by surveying at magnet events (not specifically designated for homeless youth) and by hosting at libraries. From 100 seed youth, only nine presented coupons showing they had been recruited by other youth.

Study Workforce. The study successfully used student volunteers, who attended a half-day training. Student volunteers reported that they gained an increased awareness of youth homelessness as a health and social problem. Engaging community agencies was more challenging because serving clients took precedence. While 10 community agencies expressed interest in participating in the study, ultimately only one agency was able to join the study, from which three staff members participated.

Community-based participatory methods. Young people were involved in all aspects of the study, but it was difficult for the same youth to stay involved when they needed to focus on gaining stable employment and education. Nonetheless, youth accompanied street outreach teams, which benefitted the young participants and helped to locate more homeless youth.

The study also successfully combined community-identified needs with academic research to inform service planning. For example, local policy advocate participants translated the findings into infographics disseminated to the health department, service providers, and legislators, and influenced the passing of two state bills related to homeless youth.

The research team suggests that the above findings can inform efforts in other communities to better understand the size and health service needs of their homeless youth population. They note that combining community identified needs with research strategies enhanced both research and counting efforts.

Additional references: Look for more articles about point-in-time counts, needs assessment, community involvement, and youth engagement in NCFY’s research library.

This study was part of the Youth Count! 2.0 study (PDF, 1.2MB).

Recommendations for this study were taken from “Counting Homeless Youth: Promising Practices from the Youth Count! Initiative” (PDF, 289KB)

For more information about counting homeless youth and assessing their needs see scenes from NCFY’s participation in last year’s Washington, DC, point-in-time count, discover what lessons were learned from previous youth-inclusive point-in-time counts, and listen to a podcast about bringing street outreach expertise to point-in-time counts.

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