For Youth Experiencing Homelessness, A New Toolkit Puts College Within Reach

A new toolkit from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth can help you support and advise homeless young people who want to attend college. "College Access and Success for Students Experiencing Homelessness: A Toolkit for Educators and Service Providers" (PDF, 6228KB), published in June, includes eight chapters on helping homeless young people choose, pay for and graduate from college.

Youth and family workers new to the topic will appreciate the introductory chapter explaining related federal legislation, along with the laws' key definitions and provisions. Those familiar with NAEHCY's publications will find updated information about seeking financial aid and reducing costs associated with college admissions and testing, including a worksheet that helps young people track potential waiver options.

"College Access and Success" also highlights potential barriers to finishing college, such as struggling to feel "at-home" on campus or to keep up with homework and exams. Because homeless youth may have fewer sources of emotional and financial support than their peers, options like staying in the dorms over spring break or having an accessible advisor, for example, can make a big difference.

To help young people think ahead, the guide includes a list of things youth should consider when selecting a college and a separate section comparing two-year and four-year programs. The toolkit also lists steps colleges can take to provide greater support to students experiencing homelessness.

Read the toolkit.

Primary Sources: What Motivates Homeless Youth to Stay on the Streets?

“A Paradox of Street Survival: Street Masteries Influencing Runaways’ Motivations to Maintain Street Life” (abstract; PDF, 185KB). Theory in Action, Vol. 5, No. 3 (2012).

What it’s about: This study explores what motivates young people to continue living on the street, despite the challenges and danger of doing so. The author looked at a mid-90s survey of 322 youth, ages 13 to 21, who were living on the streets of Seattle. He used the data to gauge how survival tactics like stealing and dumpster diving, along with personal values and discomfort, might impact young people's decision to stay.

Why read it: To offer effective services to runaway and homeless youth, social service providers need to understand what they actually want. This study adds to the small body of research about the characteristics of homeless young people.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: Of the young people sampled, less than 50 percent said they were strongly motivated to leave the streets. And the more young people used the streets to meet their basic needs, the less motivated they were to leave. Conversely, young people who reported feeling hungry or exhausted, or said they preferred more traditional values like cleanliness and honesty, showed greater interest in finding a stable living arrangement.

When designing drop-in, outreach and shelter programs, youth workers may want to consider that youth may have a wide range of motivations. Understanding the reasons young people don’t want to live in a more stable environment may also help staff identify opportunities to ease their concerns. Youth may value the sense of personal control they feel living on the street, the author writes, or remember feeling alone and powerless living with their families. The author also encourages youth workers to validate the resilience of young people surviving on the street, and to show how the skills they’ve gained can translate into a less risky environment.

Additional references: To learn more about translating street skills into life skills, read our article “From The Street to the Office: Helping Homeless Youth Recognize Their Workplace Potential.” We also shared some of the main reasons youth leave home in a recent research roundup.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of this and other publications.)

Bright Idea: Minnesota’s Pop-Up, One-Stop Shops for Homeless Youth

This May, more than 200 young people gathered in St. Paul, MN, to participate in Youth Connect, a “one-stop shop” of resources and activities for youth experiencing homelessness. Weaving between rows of tables staffed by local volunteers and youth workers, the teens and young adults could register for an identification card, get their teeth cleaned or learn about local jobs – all in one afternoon.

Youth Connect is modeled after Project Homeless Connect, an annual event for people of all ages experiencing homelessness in Minneapolis and several other cities across the nation. The main difference between the two events is that Youth Connect is open only to youth aged 24 and under. That enables youth service providers to build relationships with local teens in a comfortable and accessible setting and provide them with exactly the kinds of help they need, says Beth Holger-Ambrose, homeless youth services coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Human Services and one of the event’s co-founders.

“It’s really nice because they can come in and take care of a whole bunch of their needs at one time and learn about services that many of them didn’t know existed,” she says.

How Youth Connect Happens

Youth Connect takes places in four Minnesota locations ranging from urban to suburban. Holger-Ambrose hires teen interns experiencing homelessness to help promote the events. The interns visit schools during lunch, for example, to talk with students in small groups and share how they’ve benefited from Youth Connect in the past.

As a state employee with a youth work background, Holger-Ambrose says she wants Youth Connect to feel like a collaborative process between state government and the local community. She brings together churches, community centers and service organizations for regular planning meetings, and she seeks grants from community foundations to help offset costs. Schools offer buses to and from the event, which is usually held in a church basement, community center or similar venue.

“When you’re thinking about an event like this, I think the most important thing is location,” says Lily Tharoor, a school social worker who receives referrals from St. Paul’s McKinney-Vento liaisons. “You need to make sure you have an event that is reachable from all angles to make sure kids can get to it easily.”

Each event is a little bit different, but all are planned so that they offer a mix of tables where youth can, for example,

  • Get free medical and dental services
  • Get the forms they need to apply for a state identification card and birth certificate
  • Learn about employment and education resources, re-enroll in school and hear from schools about the services they offer homeless students
  • Talk to representatives from street outreach, emergency shelter and housing programs
  • Get a list of local LGBTQ support programs
  • Find out about programs at local parks and libraries

Holger-Ambrose also tries to drive up attendance and interest by including activities that appeal to youth, like arts and crafts and spoken word performances. At the end of the event, youth are encouraged to fill out an exit survey in exchange for a $10 bus card.

Holger-Ambrose says she and her colleagues take very seriously the opinions expressed in the survey: “We have a debriefing meeting, and we really go over the youth feedback and what changes we can make for next time.”

Primary Sources: Taking Stock of What We Know About Youth Homelessness

"The Mental and Physical Health of Homeless Youth: A Literature Review" (abstract). Child Psychiatry & Human Development, Vol. 43, No. 3 (2012).

What it’s about: Youth homelessness has proven difficult to study and remains not well understood by social scientists or by the communities that could provide services to these highly vulnerable young people. In an effort to focus and guide future research and practice, researchers at the University of Chicago reviewed more than a hundred studies to take stock of what is known about youth homelessness and identify unanswered questions.

Why read it: The research on youth homelessness can be confusing and sometimes contradictory. For example, different studies have estimated that the percentage of homeless youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ranges from 20 to 40 percent. Studies about mental health find that anywhere from 35 to 76 percent of homeless youth may suffer from multiple psychiatric disorders. This easy-to-read review of the literature lays out what we know about homeless youth while also explaining why much of that information may not be useful for understanding the larger picture of youth homelessness.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: The authors grouped the studies they reviewed into four main categories: (1) causes of youth homelessness; (2) characterizations of homeless youth and the implications of youth homelessness; (3) healthcare; and (4) prevention and intervention programs.  They found:

  • Factors contributing to youth homelessness include family breakdown, disruptive family relationships, and trauma and abuse. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth and foster youth are at particular risk for homelessness.
  • Cognitive development, academic achievement, and health all appear to be negatively affected by homelessness, and violence and trauma are increased. However, it isn’t clear to what degree these negative outcomes cause homelessness or are caused by homelessness.
  • Despite high rates of substance use, medical problems and psychiatric disorders, homeless youth are often unwilling to seek professional help and have difficulty accessing adequate, developmentally-appropriate and affordable health care.
  • Few prevention and intervention studies have been conducted, and many of these studies are considered of poor quality, based on the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Work Group rating system, which assesses the definition of the intervention, the use of an appropriate control group, random assignment and the soundness of the measures, among other factors.

A major limitation of existing research, the authors say, is that there is inconsistency in how different social scientists define “homeless” and “youth.”  Researchers have also tended to conduct studies with survey and assessment tools pulled together from multiple sources, which can limit the validity and usefulness of their results.

Additional References: For a list of types of studies listed by degree of scientific rigor, read NCFY’s article “Types of Quantitative Research.” A previous study, "The Heterogeneity of Homeless Youth in America: Examining Typologies," sought to more accurately define homeless youth and create a road map for determining what types of services they need. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness's National Research Agenda will include efforts to better count the number of homeless youth and define their characteristics and needs.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB, or the Administration for Children & Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of this and other publications.)

Seeking Reviewers for FYSB's Competitive Abstinence Education Program

The Family and Youth Services Bureau’s Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program is seeking qualified people to review grant applications for the Competitive Abstinence Education Program and serve as panel chairpersons.

Grant application reviewers are selected for their subject matter expertise and their ability to objectively evaluate the quality of an application for federal funding. They use their expertise to assess grant applications according to the government’s published evaluation criteria.

Who Should Apply

  • Professionals with human services or public health experience, including work preventing pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and HIV among teens
  • Students who are pursuing a master’s degree in the human service or public health fields

You’re the kind of candidate FYSB is looking for if, in addition to having relevent career or academic experience, you’re good at

  • analyzing and evaluating complex applications
  • organizing and managing your time
  • collaborating and working in a virtual team environment
  • providing written and oral evaluative comments

Time Commitment

If selected as a reviewer, you’ll participate in approximately 3 mandatory Web-based training sessions to prepare for the grant review process. Then you’ll spend 5 to 6 days in early September reviewing applications for 8 hours each day.

How to Apply

Register on the Administration for Children and Families grant reviewer website, using reference code PREP-001-2013, or call 866-796-1613.

How to Use Social Marketing to Build Healthy Teen Relationships

Does your program work to promote healthy relationships among young people? A recent webinar hosted by Futures Without Violence, a national organization that aims to prevent family and relationship violence, explores how to use online social marketing to engage young people in dating violence prevention. The webinar features lessons learned by Start Strong, a multi-site effort to prevent dating violence by teaching youth about healthy relationships. Presenters from Start Strong programs in Idaho, Massachussets and Rhode Island shared how they used social media and other online communication to spark youth dialogue in their communities.

Here are our three favorite tips from the webinar:

  1. Capitalize on pop culture: Start Strong Idaho tied a Facebook campaign about independence to the release of one of the popular "Twilight" teen vampire movies. Staff members handed out relationship quizzes at local movie theaters and created Facebook messages showing how Bella, the lead female character, could choose to better love herself instead of picking between two competing love interests.
  2. Learn how to “hide the broccoli under the cheese”: For Start Strong Boston, it’s important to use language that “sells” events and makes them seem more relevant to young people. A recent workshop on conflict resolution, for example, was promoted on social media as a day to talk about breakups.
  3. Involve youth at all stages of the communications process: Presenters emphasized the importance of youth involvement over and over. Youth not only know what events, topics and communication tools best engage their peers, they can help their friends learn the importance of creating a responsible “online footprint.” A great example of youth involvement came from Sojourner House, Start Strong’s Rhode Island affiliate. When staff decided to create an interactive game about relationships, they asked youth what characters and scenarios they would find interesting. The feedback heavily influenced the game’s final design, which features a high school class of robots interacting with one another.

Listen to the webinar and view the slides on the Futures Without Violence website.

Background Screening Tools Help Agencies Keep Young People Safe

Need a refresher on screening potential employees and volunteers to make sure there's nothing in their background suggesting they shouldn't work with youth? A new guide from the U.S. Department of Justice can help. Published in June, “What You Need to Know About Background Screening" (PDF, 3.59MB) will introduce you to tools for searching criminal history and child abuse records and help you develop a consistent screening process if you don't already have one.

The guide provides good advice for dealing with the challenges of doing background checks. For example, there is no comprehensive national screening tool, and it can be difficult to access some child abuse registries. Here are some of the authors' suggestions for overcoming those challenges:

  • Nationwide and state criminal-history checks: Depending on what state you are in, you may not be able to conduct a nationwide search to find out if applicants have criminal histories. Understand your state’s laws and regulations before creating an internal screening policy, and make sure to conduct screening in every state where an applicant has lived when national searches are not an option.
  • Child abuse registries: Although access to state child abuse registries is often restricted, you can typically request a search in order to make an informed hiring decision. Registries do vary from state to state, however, with some states only listing individuals with substantiated reports and others listing all reports and investigations regardless of their outcome.
  • Reference checks: Check references so you can verify information shared by an applicant or uncover areas that need further exploration. You can also ask references to share contact information for other individuals not listed on the application.
  • In-person interviews and observation: Get a feel for the applicant in your face-to-face interactions and observations. Even if someone does not have a criminal background, for example, he or she may raise red flags during an interview by asking inappropriate questions or showing extreme interest in the age and gender of youth served.

Read the full guide (PDF, 3.59MB) to learn more about how to create screening policies and procedures, how to conduct background checks and how to act on the information you find.

“What You Need to Know About Background Screening"  was developed by the DOJ's Community Oriented Policing Services Office in collaboration with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.


Present at the National Runaway and Homeless Youth Grantees Conference in Atlanta this November

The Family and Youth Services Bureau is looking for presenters for the National Runaway and Homeless Youth Grantees Conference, November 12-14, 2013, in Atlanta.

We encourage our readers with the following experience to apply:

  • Current or past experience working with runaway and homeless youth programs
  • Experience in workshop and conference presentations
  • Ability to present interactive, informative and innovative information
  • Willingness to work with conference organizers to ensure the best experience for participants

The conference organizers are interested in the following topics:

  • Outreach and youth engagement
  • Evidence-based practices that work for runaway and homeless youth and the programs that serve them
  • Organizational development and sustainability
  • Demonstrating effectiveness
  • Building collaborations and community awareness
  • Runaway and homeless youth services and intervention with targeted populations
  • Innovative and promising practices

Take a look at the call for presenters and consider sharing your time and talents with runaway and homeless youth providers from across the nation!

Deadline: July 31, 2013


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