Understanding the Criteria and Benchmarks for Ending Youth Homelessness: Frequently Asked Questions, Part 1

Last month, I had the opportunity to join with colleagues for the Federal Roundtable at the National Network for Youth’s National Summit on Youth Homelessness. The Summit was held a month after we released the federal Criteria and Benchmarks for Achieving the Goal of Ending Youth Homelessness, and it provided a great opportunity to reflect on a couple of questions that we’ve heard from community partners and to clarify some of the meaning and intent of language within the criteria and benchmarks. It even gave me a chance to reference one of the Seinfeld scenes that I remember best.

Q: Are all youth included within the vision of the criteria and benchmarks?

A: Yes. We want to end homelessness for all young people – period. The criteria and benchmarks explicitly state that they “apply to all youth and young adults under the age of 25 who are unaccompanied by a parent, legal guardian, or caretaker and who meet any federal definition of homelessness.”

As many of you likely know, there are different definitions of homelessness within federal statutes and programs. The biggest difference in the definitions revolves around people who are paying for their own temporary stays in hotels or motels due to lack of stable housing, or who are sharing the housing of other people due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason (often referred to as living in “doubled-up” arrangements or “couch-surfing”).

There is only one place in the criteria where the expectations are tailored based upon the situation an unaccompanied young adult is living in or which federal definition of homelessness they meet. That is within Criteria #1, regarding the expectations for a community’s ability to identify all unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness. The criteria says:

"The community identifies all unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness.
The community uses coordinated outreach, in-reach, multiple data sources, and other methods to identify and enumerate all unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness, spanning the community’s entire geographical area. Specifically, while recognizing that youth experiencing homelessness may move among a variety of settings:

  1. The community literally identifies every unaccompanied youth who is unsheltered, in shelter, or in transitional housing settings or other residential programs for youth experiencing homelessness; and,
  2. The community coordinates a comprehensive set of strategies, spanning schools, the child welfare system, including child protective services, the justice system, drop-in centers, hotlines and 2-1-1, and other youth-serving agencies and programs to identify unaccompanied youth who are doubled up or couch-surfing and considered homeless under any federal definition.

The community’s efforts are tailored to the unique needs of particularly vulnerable youth."

For those youth who are unsheltered, staying in shelter, or staying in transitional housing settings or other residential programs for youth experiencing homelessness, the community must be able to accurately count – and effectively account for – every single such young person. On any given day, the community must be able to document and describe exactly how many young people are in these situations, and how they are being helped.

But we know that young people experience instability and homelessness in many other settings – such as couch-surfing, or doubled-up – where there likely is no real methodology for identifying and knowing the exact number of youth in each of those circumstances at any given time. And we know that young people move across and among these settings as well.

So, the expectation is that the community coordinates a comprehensive set of strategies - spanning schools, the child welfare system, child protective services, the justice and juvenile justice systems, drop-in centers and street outreach programs, hotlines and 2-1-1, and other youth-serving agencies and programs - to identify unaccompanied youth who are doubled up or couch-surfing and considered homeless under any federal definition. And once a young person is identified as meeting any federal definition of homelessness, the community is expected to be able to help that young person to end their homelessness and find stability and success.

But it is also clear that our responses should not be one size fits all - the solutions and strategies for addressing the housing and services needs of unaccompanied youth should be tailored based upon each young person’s situation, needs, goals, and choices. As we recently described within Using Homelessness and Housing Needs Data to Tailor and Drive Local Solutions, we should avoid thinking about different federal definitions of homelessness as competing with each other. Rather, these differentiated definitions allow us to recognize meaningful distinctions among the people experiencing housing needs and crises in our communities, making it possible to more effectively tailor our responses, use our resources most efficiently, and engage the larger array of mainstream systems and services in order to best address current and projected needs.

Q: There’s a phrase within the criteria and benchmarks that all youth experiencing homelessness are “…offered connections to appropriate housing or services.” Is there an expectation that services being offered results in services being provided?

A: Yes. First, as I said above, all youth who are identified as meeting any federal definition of homelessness must be offered connections to appropriate housing and/or services.  All youth. Next, why did we choose the word “offered” here? These criteria and benchmarks are driven by a focus on youth choice – they emphasize that youth are empowered to choose and shape and implement the path out of homelessness that is right for them based upon a meaningful range of options. For example, Criteria #3 says:

“The provision of tailored housing and services solutions is driven by youth choice and includes a range of options, including: service-only interventions, such as family reunification; housing options with varying levels of services, such as transitional living programs, host homes, rapid re-housing, permanent supportive housing; and, other affordable, safe, and stable living situations.”

This question also makes me remember the scene from Seinfeld (see :40 mark) in which Jerry and Elaine show up to pick up a rental car they’ve reserved, but the car is not available, and Jerry tells the woman behind the counter:

“So you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation. And that’s really the most important part of the reservation …. the holding. Anybody can just take them.”

The same principle holds true here. To achieve the criteria and benchmarks, communities will need to be able to do more than just offer housing and services. They will need to demonstrate that they are effectively and efficiently ending young people’s experiences of homelessness, by offering choices and then providing effective services and housing interventions.

And there’s plenty of other language within the criteria and benchmarks that communicates this expectation. For example:

  • Criteria #2 states that the community must be able to provide immediate access to low-barrier crisis housing and services to any youth who needs and wants it.
  • Criteria #3 states that the community must be able to effectively link all youth experiencing homelessness to housing and services solutions that are tailored to their needs.
  • Criteria #4 indicates that the community must act with urgency to swiftly assist youth to move into permanent or non-time-limited housing options with appropriate services and supports.
  • Criteria #5 focuses on the community’s ability to continue to prevent and quickly end experiences of homelessness among youth into the future.

As always, we value and appreciate your partnership as we work together to end youth homelessness. These criteria and benchmarks represent our best thinking at this time - we’ll continue to review and evaluate their effectiveness as we work with more communities to understand and apply the criteria and benchmarks to their local systems. We’ve had listening sessions with several communities already, and are continuing to identify opportunities for the field and for young people to share their perspectives on how we can strengthen the proposed benchmarks as well as other indicators that we might consider.

Do you have other questions about the criteria and benchmarks that we can clarify in a future post? Let us know!

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