Salons at StoweInvisible No More: Youth Homelessness in Connecticut
May 15, 2014
The number of homeless students in the U.S. exceeded 1 million for the first time during the 2010-2011 school year, which included runaway, “thrown away” (children and youth kicked out of their homes) and children and youth living alone on the streets. That children and youth who experience homelessness suffer long lasting impacts including poverty, crime, addiction, inadequate education, consistent unemployment or underemployment, and chronic health issues. The Salon focused on creating positive change including improved coordination among state agencies, strategies for prevention and intervention, and ways individuals can make a difference for Connecticut’s youth.
Alicia Woodsby, Interim Executive Director, Partnership for Strong Communities, Hartford, CT
firstname.lastname@example.org - www.pschousing.org
Alicia Woods by joined the Partnership for Strong Communities as the Deputy Executive Director in November of 2011. The Partnership is a statewide nonprofit policy and advocacy organization dedicated to ending homelessness, expanding the creation of affordable housing, and building strong communities in Connecticut. Alicia takes a lead role in advocacy, communications, policy development and large scale planning initiatives .She manages and oversees the Reaching Home Campaign and implementation of Opening Doors-CT (OD-CT), the statewide framework for preventing and ending homelessness aligned with the federal Opening Doors plan.
As the former Public Policy Director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in CT, Alicia took a lead role on issues related to Medicaid and medication access, mental health parity, housing, decriminalization, and community mental health systems, among others. She conducted presentations on mental health policy at the state level and nationally.
Alicia worked closely with the NAMI-CT Board of Directors, its Public Policy Committee, and statewide membership to advocate for people with psychiatric disabilities and their families. She publicly represented the policy initiatives of NAMI-CT, and served as the primary liaison for public policy issues on state coalitions and with the national branch of NAMI.
Alicia co-chaired and managed the Keep the Promise Coalition and played a lead role in the development of the Keep the Promise children’s initiative. She served on the NAMI National State Policy Advisory Group, the Reaching Home Campaign Steering Committee, and multiple Medicaid and healthcare coalitions. Alicia sits on the state’s Behavioral Health Partnership Oversight Council, and co-chairs the subcommittee for Adult Quality, Access and Policy issues. She is a member of the Board of Directors for the North Central Regional Mental Health Board.
Alicia holds a Masters of Social Work in Policy Practice, and a focused area of study in Mental Health and Substance Abuse. Alicia graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Connecticut with a B.A. in Psychology.
Stacey Violante Cote, JD, MSW, Director, Teen Legal Advocacy Project, Center for Children's Advocacy, Hartford, CT
email@example.com - www.kidscounsel.org
Stacey has been with the Center since 2001 and Director of the Center’s Teen Legal Advocacy Project since 2003, working with teens in the Greater Hartford area including Hartford public school students, youth in the care of the Department of Children and Families, and homeless youth.
Hartford has one of the highest drop-out rates in Connecticut. The Teen Legal Advocacy Project provides legal advocacy to remove barriers that prevent youth from completing high school, addressing civil legal issues such as the educational rights of homeless students, improper denials of state and federal benefits, educational advocacy, the rights of victims of teen dating violence, the rights of teens in the care of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the legal rights of pregnant/parenting students, the rights of youth who have been abused or neglected, and the legal rights of immigrant and refugee youth.
Stacey also supervises Project attorneys who run the Teen Legal Advocacy Clinic at Bridgeport’s Harding High School and those who work with youth in shelters and group homes throughout the state.
Stacey graduated from University of Connecticut School of Law in 2001 and University of Connecticut School of Social Work in 2000. She was awarded the New Leaders of the Law recognition by the Connecticut Law Tribune in 2002, was named one of University of Connecticut’s 2008 “40 Under 40 Outstanding Graduates,” and Connecticut Magazine’s 2012 “40 Under 40 Upcoming Leaders.”
Susan Campbell, Communications and Development Director, Partnership for Strong Communities
firstname.lastname@example.org - www.pschousing.org - @campbellsl
Susan Campbell joined the Partnership for Strong Communities as the new Communications and Development Director in March 2013. She works on communicating the Partnership's message and expanding the organization's financial base.
For more than a quarter-century, Susan was a columnist at the Hartford Courant, where her work was recognized by the National Women's Political Caucus, New England Associated Press News Executives, the Society for Professional Journalists, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the Sunday Magazine Editors Association.
Her column about the shootings at lottery headquarters in March 1998 was part of The Courant's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage. She is the current Robert C. Vance Endowed Chair in Journalism and Mass Communication at Central Connecticut State University.
She is also the author of “Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl,” and the upcoming biography: “Tempest Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker.” The mother of two adult sons, and the grandmother of seven, she has a bachelor's degree from University of Maryland, and a master's degree from Hartford Seminary.
Stacey Violante Cote
The issue of homelessness is everywhere and in all communities, no matter how affluent they are. She provides legal advocacy for low-income teenagers. Issue of youth who are homeless or have housing instability came from meeting kids in the situation. In her role, she searches for systemic remedies to the problem of youth homelessness. She and Alicia have “married their interests” in a way that has not been done in the State to find solutions.
She recently worked with a girl named Kayleigh from New Haven, whose family was living together and was then evicted from their apartment – the mother and one sibling went to live with family, and the father went to live with someone else; Kayleigh had to go live with friends because no family could take her in. She was an honors student until she had to move from house to house, worry about food (finding food or eating too much when staying as a guest). Another young person she worked with was Angela, a 19 year-old who grew up in the Department of Children and Families system. Angela was sexually abused as a child and removed from parents’ cares when she was very young. She was moved between ten DCF care facilities and foster homes. When she was a teenager, she no longer wanted to be part of DCF’s program because she was traumatized from her experiences with the department and decided to go out on her own. She stayed with friends and in the stairwells of apartment buildings, and finally with a boyfriend with whom she broke up after she became pregnant. She is currently living with a different boyfriend, his family, and her two children in one apartment, and is always at risk of returning to the streets.
When people think about homelessness they think about adults and sometimes families, but not often youth. Whether a youth who has run away from home, or separated from homeless family, they are not known to many; LGBTQ youth make up large percentage of homeless. For people who do not know where they are going to sleep, they trade sex for a place to stay or for money which leads to prostitution and sex trafficking. The State has always said that there not enough shelter beds so the homeless need to be diverted from the shelters to find family or others to stay with – the problem with youth is that they are already diverting to friends or prostitution. We have to remember that the youth population has its own characteristics as it relates to housing stability. She does not talk about “homelessness” with youth, rather asks where they have “been staying” to take away sting of “homelessness.”
The Partnership for Strong Communities joined forces with the Center for Children's Advocacy to expand affordable housing and end homelessness through advocacy. One of the major problems is that there is no central crisis response system, or safe place and supportive services, for runaway and homeless children in CT. Economic hardship is a major driver for families, and when families become homeless teenagers are often separated from their parents. There is a severe lack of affordable housing and homelessness has increased by 10% since 2010. There is a 90,000 unit shortage of affordable housing for the lowest income level. There are currently 100,000 in CT earning the lowest pay levels and they are spending 50%+ of their earnings on their homes; thought they have homes, they are one or two pay checks away from becoming homeless. Connecticut has the second highest wealth gap in the nation after NY. As Stacey said, kids often become homeless because of their families and are frequently separated from their families. They are faced with lodging with friends or turning t more dangerous options. 15,000 kids and 800 families are on the waitlist for affordable housing in CT.
Are about 14,000 people who are homeless in CT on an annual basis. There are 4 runaway youth crisis providers in the state with a total of 13 beds available. There is also a “point in time count” of people in shelters and affordable housing units. Many kids are not using the shelter system because they feel they are victimized in the system. Alicia and Stacey partnered with Yale a few years ago to embark on a study of youth homelessness, now known as the "Invisible No More Report." They knew homelessness was happening, but policy changes could not happen until they could prove that it existed. With Yale, they trained service providers that worked with youth to create a survey. 98 youth in central and south/southwestern CT were surveyed. A similar study was done in Waterbury where they found 40 homeless youth. The survey determined who the kids were, what their needs were, and how they were found. Some of the study findings included:
- 55% female, 42% male, 3% transgender
- 49% African American
- Average age was 14-24 years old
- 27% received special education, 32% had dropped out of school, 12% were told they could no longer attend school
- 53% had contact with DCF, and of those 69% had been removed from the home
- Average number of moves was more than 6 times
- 58% had been kicked out of home by family at least once
- 23% identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or unsure
- 25% had considered suicide in the last year
- several reported that they had traded sex for money
- 89% were sexually active with an average of 5.6 sexual partners
- 23% first experienced sexual intercourse at the age of 12 or younger
- 48% arrested at least once
- 39% had been imprisoned
- 57% were on food stamps
Study recommendations (after interviews with homeless youth, key stakeholders, and focus groups)
- Increasing housing resources
- Creating comprehensive crisis services to address immediate crisis needs
- Creating services to increase educational outcomes for the kids
Audience question: Any numbers for how many had children while homeless?
- Stacey and Alicia: Number is available, but not on hand.
- Audience comment: It is difficult to get food stamps without a permanent address
- Stacey: is a process for homeless to register with food stamps
Susan: Is it fair to say that everyone has walked by a homeless youth without knowing?
- Stacey: Yes
- Audience comment: She and her husband are surrogates for children in DCF. She has seen them leave the system at age 18 because they think they will have a better life living on the street. Even when you work so hard to get them an education, they just sometimes even without resources.
- Audience comments: It’d be helpful for agencies like Department of Social Services (DSS) to have an expedited process to access crisis resources.
Stacey: There are 4 runaway youth crisis providers in the state: Meriden, Bridgeport, New Haven, and now West Hartford, with combinations of street outreach and crisis beds. The crisis providers can have phone relationships with kids for months because they do not feel comfortable coming in to the center, and so the case for more than 13 beds in the state is hard to make when they are not full. The advocacy becomes tricky, especially when the centers and beds are so far away from many of the homeless youth.
Audience comment: As a historian, immediately thinks about what Stowe would have thought. She’d likely think that these kids deserve families, and in earlier centuries families were more likely to accept other children. Famously in Puritan-era Connecticut, single people could not live alone and had to live with a family – if you lived by yourself, you were thought of as a savage. There will always be youth with this problem and need to be taken in – are there other states or countries where more accessible resources are available? Are there model practices that reduce the rates of youth homelessness?
- Stacey: Her and Alicia’s day-to-day work is looking for model systems that can be adapted in CT. CT is not a state where this issue has been discussed. When she has approached legislators in CT about homeless youth, they always asked “Where? How many?” They could never get past the questions to talk about the need, hence why the statistics in the report are so important to the future of policy adovocacy. Also in CT, DCF has been the only agency that has been used to solve this problem – DCF agrees that they cannot combat the entire problem of youth crisis. We will always have a group of kids that do not want to be in the DCF system. She talks about “the third leg of the stool”: child welfare system, juvenile justice system, and an agency addressing prevention needs and immediate crisis needs. The providers also do family mediation to help youth and give them a safe place to stay while family issues are mediated.
- Alicia: We finally have some federal tools and guidance to help the issue in the state. In the adult system, we are moving away from shelters and transitional housing and towards permanent housing, which makes advocating for more transitional housing for kids challenging. There are many populations in the 14-24 group with many intervention needs. At the federal level is an initiative called Opening Doors for ending homelessness – it took 2 years for the initiative to include runaway and homeless youth. The plan now has a preliminary intervention framework, and is informing plans and efforts in CT. How do we design a system that has multiple options of crisis services and remedies?
- Stacey: New Jersey and Minneapolis, MN have done a good job of getting both a funding system for supports and services, and statutory language for how the services will work together. Counties tend to do more than states
Susan: Some people say “regionalism” is a bad word, but if we didn’t have 169 separate towns in CT would we have a better situation?
- Alicia: It might, as it would bring more communities together within a county. 169 towns also means 169 school systems and it becomes difficult to implement a plan that all agree to and buy into.
- Audience comment: In lower Fairfield County, Continuum of Care (COC ) programs are joining together to create a stronger impact.
Susan: How expensive is it to have a youth on the streets vs. in a crisis center plugged into services?
- Alicia: Youth do not all utilize the systems, but some do touch on DCF, DSS and juvenile justice systems. Over time, they become extraordinarily costly to the state.
- Stacey: Many of the youth drop out of school which becomes extremely expensive to the state. There is a federal law that kids who are homeless should have education as their stability. In the "Invisible No More Report," findings showed that of the 98 kids, 12% were told by their schools that they could no longer attend school. Many school administrations are not aware of the federal protections for kids, and so based on residency, they feel they need to move their kids into systems where they are then living (if they move between shelters, they do not know they can leave their kids in the same school system).
- Audience comment: Were 4 kids in a shelter in Norwalk that were being transported to Bridgeport for schools, which lead to high transportation costs.
- Stacey: It is understandable that because the districts do not receive extra funds for transportation homeless youth they do not want to offer the services.
Audience comment: Family mediation is a really important service. Many families push their LGBTQ children onto the streets because it is easier than dealing with the situation when they have other children and problems. There need to be special supports for families.
- Audience comment: The schools often cannot offer the necessary services to help their students.
- Stacey: Students who were surveyed and were in school said they did receive a lot from the school. Mental health counseling, financial support from teachers and staff, and more. This makes the 12% of dropouts even more significant.
Audience question: How are you getting the word out to schools?
- Alicia: Are approaching the issue knowing that a lot of research and work has happened, and that there are different models for different populations. They have hired Youth Catalytics, a company that has worked on issues of youth homelessness for years. They are working with stakeholders around the state, and soon homeless youth, to determine a blueprint for creating services in the state. The “blueprint” will hopefully be developed by September. The report was released at the Legislative Office Building publicly, which lead to meetings with legislators and agencies. Has lead to officials expressing interest in offering services.
- Stacey: Are working to get letters to school systems about current laws and protections. The law allows for educational surrogates for kids who are on their own, but no one knows the services are available.
- Audience comment: As educational surrogates, they work specifically with special needs students to advocate on their behalf for kids in DCF.
- Stacey: Are trying to encourage schools to recommend kids with special needs, who may be homeless, to be recommended for surrogates.
- Audience comment: Federal law requires that schools take any kid who shows up at their door, however many do not know that and require birth certificates, immunizations, transcripts, etc. (even if they are not available) before enrolling a student, which makes the role of surrogates difficult.
- Alicia: This year, asked legislature to reinstate funding for crisis services. It was approved at the end of this session. The next step is making sure that the funds are used appropriately.
Stacey: Last year, providers were saying that if kids under 18 did not have birth certificates, they could not obtain one because parents/grandparents are needed in order for them to be issued. After two tries in the legislative session, last year were successful in getting unaccompanied homeless youth to be able to access their birth certificates. Department of Public Health was worried that kids would learn difficult information about parentage from birth certificates, but compromised with advocates to implement a process for youth to obtain records.
- Audience comment: How do the youth not lose their birth certificates when moving couch to couch? There should be a repository for their birth certificates so they don’t lose them.
- Stacey: They do often lose them. Is a homeless liaison in each school district, and some have been advocates of placing kids in job programs.
Audience question: What about undocumented youth?
- Stacey: “Undocumented” refers to kids without legal status. If a state court determines a homeless youth to be undocumented, they can go to immigration, ask for permission to stay in the United States, and receive permission to stay. She represented such a girl from Jamaica who was abandoned before she was a year old. Her father died, she was moved from place to place in Jamaica, and was finally taken in by her 5th grade teacher. She was moved to the US to live with her teacher’s niece. She was ready to graduate high school but could not get funding for school as an illegal student, but they were able to show in the courts that she had been abandoned and recently she received a green card. She can now get federal funding and attend college in the US.
- Audience comment: There are many things working against undocumented youth who are homeless.
- Stacey: Low percentage of the youth surveyed were undocumented, or at least reported that they were undocumented.
Audience comment: Sounds like an important thing to do is support families so homelessness doesn’t happen. Starting at the base of the family would help avoid youth becoming homeless from the start.
- Alicia: When Opening Doors launched, which said that all aspects of homelessness – healthcare, employment, crisis response, housing, etc. – had to be considered together (not in silos), it showed how multiple systems and agencies can be married with advocacy and partnerships. It now feels like momentum can be gained more quickly.
Susan: Do you really believe that you can end homelessness among youth in CT?
- Alicia: Yes. Although some may fall back into homelessness, by targeting the chronically homeless and using the resources and tools available, can work towards ending the problem.
- Audience question: In a state with many resources and families with extra rooms, how do you draw on those resources and help people understand the situation?
- Audience comment: Is a lot of work to take in families and not enough people willing to make the commitment.
- Alicia: As we get a better handle on who the populations are, there are models of host homes where families are screened and trained so that they can host children. People don’t see policy and advocacy work as things that pull on their heart strings but are what is going to make the change; people want to do something directly and see the change. Agencies like Partnership for Strong Communities face challenges in building support, but that is what is going to move the support system forward.
Audience comment: The big driver for action in our society is inequality. The mis-distribution of income, and the attitude that causes and breeds it, bring about homelessness and social ills. Earlier generations would not be getting down in the weeds – they’d be talking about making big, systematic change.
- Alicia: While trying to end homelessness, the Partnership for Strong Communities is also trying to change communities – helping to eliminate poverty and segregation, building support for affordable housing, and more, through the Home Connecticut campaign. The issues are very interrelated and linked. In order to solve the crisis situation fully, have to be able to have kids attend school systems where they can obtain quality education, have people with the ability to afford living in the communities in which they work. The organization is working to fight the inequalities.
- Audience comment: All people should be advocating for greater equality. European societies advocate for the disadvantaged much more than in the US.
Audience comment: Have you looked at the refugee population?
- Stacey: Yes, some have been her clients. Also has to do with mental health care. Hartford is a refugee resettlement site. Education is important and school districts have to remember to provide equal access to education to English language learners. Some school districts do not treat refugee students as they should, especially when they may have never attended school before and speak little or no English.
INSPIRATION TO ACTION
- Talk about this issue. Raise awareness about the numbers of young people at risk.
- Campaign for greater equality.
- Involve more youth voice in discussions and create safe places for homeless youth to talk openly.
- Support families.
- Become a host home.
- Support organizations like Partnership for Strong Communities and Center for Children’s Advocacy.
- Check out www.speakupteens.org, a website for accompanied homeless youth to learn about their legal rights.
- Learn more about states like New Jersey and Minnesota that are doing a better job than Connecticut.
- Raise awareness about the law that allows for education surrogates.
- Get the word out to schools about federal laws – re: kids right to stay in school even if they don’t have records.
- Develop a crisis response system to respond to the needs of these young people.
- Develop more affordable housing.
- Create expedited system for youth in crisis so they aren’t left waiting.
- More beds/places for homeless youth in CT.
- Work to create stronger communities with more opportunities and equity.