Schools Are a Critical Part of Solutions to End Youth Homelessness

There are nearly 6,000 unaccompanied youth in Massachusetts. Experiencing homelessness often prevents motivated, hard-working youth from graduating high school and achieving success. A 2000 Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders article shows that without intervention, only about 27 percent of them will graduate high school.

Many dedicated provider organizations across the nation are tackling youth homelessness, trying to find the funding to keep developing programs that expertly teach career training and coaching, or educational goals and tutoring, or provide youth shelters as emergency alternatives to a night on the street. But one pillar of the solution is often neglected. The YouthHarbors’ program effectively melds the housing and educational needs, using schools as an essential partner.

The school system is often not considered for these partnerships. For many students, however, schools are the closest thing to a “home and family” they have and are their only trusted support system. Schools interact with these youth daily. They are in the unique position that allows them to identify when youth are distracted or struggling because they are part of the “invisible population” of motivated youth struggling alone with homelessness.

In December 2012, the YouthHarbors program (which provides a continuum of housing and life skills lessons to unaccompanied high school students experiencing homelessness in Boston) partnered with the Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA), a charter school that re-engages youth who have fallen off the traditional educational track. This was the third of four partnerships that YouthHarbors developed with a high school since the uniquely school-based program launched in 2009.

YouthHarbors and BDEA both believe that unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness must receive the necessary and appropriate support to ensure they are safely housed and graduate high school. These youth want to graduate. They want to find a job, and they want to succeed. Stephany Karim, Boston’s YouthHarbors program manager, says, “For the youth at YouthHabors, once their housing is stabilized, for the most part, they are able to focus on their education and look forward to a brighter future. They can focus on their educational goals. Furthering their educational goals, such as going to college, become reality, a possibility. [They’re] no longer worried about where they will sleep at night.”

By working with schools to identify youth who are homeless, and providing an outreach worker located in the school’s own student support office, youth have easy access to an effective, all-encompassing service delivery model that complements their schooling.

All of the students at BDEA are high risk, with each student having on average 24 different risk factors that increase their struggles to graduate and succeed. Many of these risk factors are related to experiencing homelessness.

In the nine months from December 2012 to the end of BDEA’s summer trimester in September 2013, YouthHarbors provided housing and services to 19 youth. This year, YouthHarbors has already served an additional 27 youth, plus eight who have continued on from the previous year. The YouthHarbors solution is working. In the first partial year, 92 percent of the 12 enrolled previously homeless or at imminent risk youth were housed in stable, appropriate housing at the end of the year, and all of them had either graduated or were on track to graduate. We expect this year’s data to show similar positive results.

In YouthHarbors’ four partner schools combined, the program has served more than 200 youth and has had an average 94 percent housing success rate and an average 97 percent graduation success rate.

Mariana, for example, is a motivated youth who struggled with homelessness and had a history of drug abuse in the family. She explains that, “YouthHarbors has secured stability for me and helps me learn how to balance all the realms of my life.” Mariana was a highly competent student at BDEA, working an internship, and even volunteering for her church and community, all while she was homeless and bouncing back and forth between the couch at her father’s one-room apartment and her boyfriend’s mother’s house. With support from YouthHarbors, she now has a supportive, caring place in a Boston host family’s home. Moreover, she is able to keep up with her activities, stay on the path to finishing high school, and plan for higher education.

YouthHarbors is the only program designed to place staff directly in schools to work with each school's unaccompanied youth who are experiencing homelessness. Our model is easily duplicated because it works in direct partnership with the schools, the community and other local organizations. It is designed to successfully identify and effectively serve a notoriously “invisible” and difficult-to-serve population.  What results is a caring identification and referral system between teachers and administrators inside BDEA and YouthHarbors staff, coupled with a comprehensive array of wraparound housing and life skills services.

Danielle Ferrier is Executive Director of Rediscovery, a division of the Justice Resource Institute. Beatriz McConnie Zapater is Head of School of the Boston Day and Evening Academy.

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