A pilot project at nine sites, including Whatcom County, is trying to get an accurate picture of how many homeless youths are out there and on their own.
The effort to improve such counts, gather details about what led to youth homelessness, and the different approaches were discussed in a report issued earlier this month by The Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
More accurate and detailed information will help direct dwindling resources to where they can best be used to help prevent or end youth homelessness, policy makers and advocates said.
"You can't really address the issues if you don't know the scope of the problems," said Pamela Lee, research associate for the institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.
"The point, really, is just to develop better strategies to get better numbers eventually," added Lee, co-author of the report, titled "Youth Count! Progress Study."
Four federal agencies launched the pilot as part of the Obama administration's goal of ending homelessness for children, youth and families by 2020. The Urban Institute evaluated the pilot sites and their methods, which were part of a larger annual survey of all homeless, called the "point in time" count.
Other pilot sites were Boston; Houston; Seattle/King County; Cleveland; New York City; Hennepin County, Minn.; Los Angeles; and Winston-Salem, N.C. Whatcom County was grouped with three other counties, but the report focused on efforts here.
Consider the problem: The estimated number of homeless youths in the country varies widely, from nearly 23,000 to 1.7 million, according to the report.
That's because different counts use different age ranges and definitions of homelessness. Another problem: Methods used to count homeless adults don't reflect youth survival strategies such as hiding in plain sight - meaning it's not always easy to pick out a homeless kid from other kids - hanging within groups, or being mobile.
Then, too, youths might not consider themselves homeless if they're couch-surfing or doubling up.
Also, many homeless youths want to stay hidden because they're fleeing abusive homes or fear being forced into foster care.
"A lot of times, minors in particular don't want to be found. They're fearful of what our system would do to them," said Riannon Bardsley, executive director of Northwest Youth Services, which runs a drop-in center and youth shelter in Bellingham.
The nonprofit led the count of homeless youngsters in Whatcom County from Jan. 24 to Feb. 6, with the main focus on Jan. 24.
The area in and around Bellingham was the focal point, although there was some outreach to eastern Whatcom County.
In that time, 109 homeless youths age 24 and younger who were unaccompanied were counted. That is, they weren't homeless with their parents, Bardsley explained.
The count focused on youths in shelters or transitional living spaces, out on the streets, or couch surfing from one spot to the next.
Of the total:
78 made up youth households, meaning, for example, that some of the individuals were in a relationship with another homeless youth.
18 of the households were families, where youths 18 to 24 years old had children.
83 weren't in school. Just 25 percent of the young adults had finished high school or obtained a GED, mirroring a national trend.
86 weren't working.
"They're very disconnected," Bardsley said of the number that were neither working nor in school. "What a need there was for those kinds of support services, or some kind of engagement."
10 were minors; the youngest was 15 years old. Four of them were chronically homeless, meaning they had been homeless for at least one year or repeatedly during the last three years.
While Whatcom County had gotten a snapshot of homeless youths in previous counts, this one included an in-depth survey and youth-specific focus that included hiring homeless youngsters to help with the count, including street outreach.
"That goes really smoothly when there's a peer," Bardsley said, of the greater trust engendered.
The nonprofit also opened its drop-in center for 24 hours - going from midnight to midnight - to draw youths.
"There are many causes rooted in how and why a young person becomes homeless," Bardsley said.
"The youth point-in-time-count effort gives us an opportunity to learn more about the size and scope of youth homelessness in Whatcom County," she added, "and what we are learning is that the numbers are manageable."
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