Preventing Youth Homelessness: Partnerships Between Homelessness Services and Juvenile Justice Systems

October 22, 2019

In order to prevent and end homelessness, we must reduce the risk of homelessness for people transitioning from public systems. In some communities across the country, one focus of activities is reducing the risk of homelessness among youth and young adults transitioning from the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

USICH recently spoke with staff leading this work at The Link in Minneapolis, MN, and both Larkin Street Youth Services and Collaborative Courts for Superior Courts in San Francisco, CA, who shared how they are leveraging partnerships between the homelessness services and justice systems to disrupt and end the cycle of homelessness among youth and young adults.

USICH: How are the homelessness services and justice systems in your community working to prevent and end homelessness?

San Francisco, CA: In 2015, the San Francisco Superior Court’s Young Adult Court (YAC) partnered with Larkin Street Youth Services to ensure that shelter beds could be made available to young adults, ages 18-24, participating in the YAC program. YAC is a problem-solving court. Local justice partners, clinicians, and other providers help with case management when a young adult is referred to YAC. The partners that are involved with this initiative include the public defender’s office, probation, court system, local service providers, prosecutor’s office, and landlords. Landlords that permit justice-involved young adults into their units play a vital role in youth housing, and landlord relationship building, and outreach occurs often. To help eliminate restrictive barriers to housing like background checks for young adults, Larkin Street is a lease holder in our current model.

Looking for more permanent and stable housing options for justice-involved youth, the YAC-Larkin Street partnership grew in 2017 through funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP). In addition to continuing to make shelter beds available, Larkin Street now provides 10 units of permanent supportive housing to young adults who are experiencing homelessness and have gone through the YAC process.

Minneapolis, MN: In our community, there is a partnership called the Juvenile Supervision Center (JSC) between the City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, the Minneapolis Public Schools District, and The Link, a youth and adult led nonprofit that provides juvenile justice alternative programs, emergency shelter, and housing and supportive services for youth who are experiencing homelessness and/or sex trafficking. Any police officer can drop off at the JSC any individual between the ages of 10-17 who has been caught committing a low-level offense, status offense, or felony car theft to The Link; this is a warm hand-off. Other eligible participants include youth that are suspected of being trafficked, dealing with abuse at home, experiencing housing instability, or struggling with poverty and/or sexual exploitation.

After the police officer makes the initial drop off, JSC program officers engage the young person to understand their individual circumstances and how best to support and help them, all while using a strengths-based and trauma-informed approach. Youth are connected to housing within The Link or at another shelter. Youth in shelter for 14 days are eligible for a coordinated entry assessment to get into longer term housing. We also offer mobile case management for youth and their families. We help youth create an individualized goal plan that includes registering for identification, linking to medical and mental health care, enrolling in school and maintaining enrollment, as well as supporting family reunification and connections to shelter and housing as needed.

USICH: How did the partnership with juvenile justice begin?

San Francisco, CA: Larkin Street has been working with youth experiencing homelessness since 1984, and overrepresentation of justice-involved young people has always been apparent. 1 in 4 youth that utilize Larkin Street have a history with the criminal justice system. The partnership between Larkin Street and the YAC emerged after the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing for San Francisco engaged Larkin Street and other partners in the community planning process to explore strategies used to prevent and end homelessness. The process was led by youth with lived experience of homelessness as key stakeholders. Housing programs for justice-involved youth emerged as a key priority.

Minneapolis, MN: The Juvenile Court has been in operation for over 10 years. The Court has great discretion when it comes to sentencing, and many of the Juvenile Court judges were motivated to find support for youth that commit low-level offenses rather than exacerbating the rate at which youth – especially youth of color – are incarcerated. The City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, and the school system funded this opportunity as a best practice for serving young people and to change the narrative for children and youth who are disproportionately impacted by overly severe consequences for what are often low-level offenses. The recidivism rate for the youth that have participated in the program is less than 10%. And it turns out to be more cost-effective to provide supportive services rather than put young people in jail.

USICH: How does this work address issues related to racial equity and disparities across the homelessness services and justice systems for youth?

San Francisco, CA: The National Association of Drug Court Professionals defined standards on equity and inclusion in 2010. The court system follows the standard and is very mindful of the issue. Court staff have completed trainings on implicit bias, and court staff and clinic staff are culturally competent and reflect the clients being served. The program consciously adheres to its service provisions and is intentional about understanding and responding to data and associated performance measures data and performance measures.

For Larkin Street, the team has been engaged in the same work related to racial equity and disparities through our strategic planning process. The Larkin Street team amended its theory of change to ensure that one of the core principles calls out ending youth homelessness for youth of color and LGBTQ youth, and youth completing the program are representative of the community. The City of San Francisco has increased the level of accountability in this work through the youth assessment component of coordinated entry.

Minneapolis, MN: Our community has equity and inclusion embedded in the strategic plan and incorporated in the action items. Programs have been designed through input by youth with lived experience to ensure programs are more welcoming and inclusive, and built to serve individual needs as they relate to oppression. Our community is strongly involved with juvenile justice reform to dismantle racism and is actively participating in the SPARC initiative . We’re also taking a deeper dive in exploring the intersectionality between homelessness and racism. We are looking into what system rules need to be changed at the city and county level, as well as how we can help service providers to be more inclusive to address and confront racism.

USICH: What has surprised you most about this work?

San Francisco, CA: There is typically a bias against justice-involved young adults regarding their lack of ambition. Working with youth from a strengths-based approach, where they are the determinants of their own lives, demonstrates how hard working and motivated they are.

Minneapolis, MN : We were surprised at the willingness of the youth to participate in a program they were first introduced to through law enforcement contact. JSC is not detention or a supervision facility and the youth can decline participation. But most youth choose to engage with the program and are willing to work with staff through a strengths-based approach.

Another surprising aspect is that even though the program operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and serves nearly 1,000 people per year, we see very few incidents of altercations between the youth that are served. When incidents do occur, it is usually due to trauma the youth experienced. Even when youth of rival gangs are involved in the program, there has not been a reported incident.

USICH: What prevention strategy has been most impactful in your work?

San Francisco, CA: We have a responsibility to be trained on issues relevant to transition-aged youth and to understand current research on neuroscience and brain development. We continually attend trainings and undergo periodic assessments about YAC.  The best prevention strategy is to develop a successful program where we in the justice and housing community are accountable to those we serve.

Minneapolis, MN : Our program embraces children as young as 10. We know youth are recruited into crime at a very young age, particularly vulnerable children and youth. By engaging early, we can begin to address the underlying issues contributing to and impacting the child or youth’s increased risk for greater involvement with the justice system and empower them to overcome challenges with strong support.

USICH: How will you sustain cureent homelessness prevention efforts?

San Francisco, CA: Initially implemented as a time-limited YHDP pilot, this initiative will be permanently embedded into the array of CoC-funded projects. San Francisco City has also launched a $35 million campaign called “Rising Up,” focused on prevention efforts and meeting the community-wide goal of reducing the rate of youth homelessness by 50% by 2023. There is tremendous momentum behind this campaign, along with political will supporting efforts to meet the goal of ending youth homelessness.  This is an exciting time for the city and folks are feeling hopeful.

Minneapolis, MN: This initiative was funded through a “Joint Powers Agreement” between Hennepin County, the City of Minneapolis, and the Minneapolis Public School District, and is included as a budget line item in each partner’s budget. This initiative has the support of political leadership across the board and the hope is for continued dedicated funding in the city budget, which is voted on every 2 years. The program also receives in-kind donations through available space to hold the program and vehicles needed for transport.

USICH: What closing words of wisdom do you have for other communities interested in building similar partnerships with juvenile justice systems?

San Francisco, CA: At the direct service level, take a client-centered approach where individuals are treated with respect and are not judged. It is also important to have clients fully engaged with the program, and to incorporate a harm-reduction approach.

At the system level, it is important to have clarity about each other’s roles, and to think strategically about the work that needs to be addressed together. When communities have clarity about expectations and responsibilities, and the right people in the right roles, there is an opportunity to build a strong foundation of trust from which you can advance a coordinated approach to prevention.

Minneapolis, MN : It is important to note that when communities are providing services through the juvenile justice system, that is a form of homelessness prevention. Many of the young people involved with the justice system are not stably housed and/or have run away from home. Even if communities are focused on issues related to involvement with the juvenile justice system, connecting youth to safe shelter options and housing supports can contribute to a reduced risk of future housing instability and homelessness. Oftentimes, the youth that interact with the juvenile justice system and the homelessness services system are one and the same. It is also very important to have program design and interventions led by youth with prior or current involvement with the juvenile justice system.

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