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Homeless Teens Falling Through Cracks, Brase Says at IForum

1 March 2011

The tragic human impact and policy consequences of homelessness and housing instability among youth and families was illustrated at the Partnership's third IForum on February 28, featuring a keynote address by Monica Brase, teacher at Hartford's Classical Magnet School, and responses from Rep. Christopher Donovan, Speaker of the House, Dept. of Children and Families (DCF) deputy commissioner Janice Gruendel, Casey Family Services' Kristina Stevens, and Institute of Living child psychiatrist Dr. Eric Cohen. See photos of the event below.

Brase has raised awareness and facilitated greater support for teens at Classical Magnet High School who have faced homelessness. She helped form an after school enrichment program in which students use events, print material and surveys to highlight the needs of young people experiencing homelessness and hunger. The group was alarmed by the extent of homelessness and hunger at Classical Magnet after performing a survey of 549 students in 2008. Among respondents, 71 have had periods with nowhere to stay, and 111 feared they would face homelessness within the next year. Sixty-nine had missed meals because their family couldn't afford food, and 84 expected they may face hunger in the next year.

In general, the number of youth experiencing homelessness is hard to quantify. Busy schools have trouble tracking students' housing status. Young people couch surfing may not want to be labeled "homeless," or may not know what types of services and supports are available to them. Estimates show 1-1.5 million unaccompanied youth nationwide being homeless, and 2,017 homeless youth in Connecticut. But most experts agree that these reports significantly under-count youth homelessness. For stronger policy solutions to emerge, better data collection and analysis of this population will be critical.

The reasons for youth homelessness are as multifaceted and complex as their families. Lack of money or other challenges can lead overwhelmed parents to force teens to fend for themselves in finding food and a place to live. Eviction can cause a family to scatter, with each family member staying with a different friend or relative. Some households are abusive and a teen's best choice is to run away. Some were in DCF care and aged-out when they turned 18.

Beyond the obvious impacts upon education, homelessness leads to many other problem with long-term implications. Unaccompanied youth are at greater risk of substance addiction, sex trafficking and prostitution, pregnancy, mental and physical illness, diminished employability and more. In these formative years, conditions are set for long-term success, or cycles of poverty and dependence on expensive public systems.

Brase brought a few students from Classical Magnet to share their stories and quotes from fellow students. In addition to the hardship of not having a stable home, teens report difficulty dealing with schools, service systems and agencies not always capable of meeting their needs. Teachers and other school staff can be too overworked to respond to students' needs outside of school.  Sometimes youth fear DCF involvement, or family members getting in trouble, so schools' role as mandated reporters of abusive situations keeps youth from talking about their situation. Youth aren't always aware of what help is available. Some get stuck in agency bureaucracy, waiting a long time for assistance that may not even be a good match for their circumstances. Some youth face a strong encouragement by service agencies to return to their family, even when abuse is likely there. Youth living on their own, and estranged from parents, can have trouble obtaining their birth certificate or other documents required to apply for assistance programs. Homeless shelters are often crowded and unpleasant, and may feel unsafe for a young person.

Brase offered several potential solutions:

  1. Collect better data to understand the problem and raise awareness,
  2. Train school staff on the needs of students dealing with homelessness or unstable housing,
  3. Strong collaboration between schools, agencies, families and other community resources,
  4. Improve kids' access to and awareness of programs and supports,
  5. Include kids' friends and family in interventions,
  6. More affordable housing for families, to avoid homelessness sparked by family eviction,
  7. Appropriate housing for unaccompanied youth who become homeless, in a variety of types to meet different needs and preferences, combined with a collection of services.

The response panel offered insightful reaction and connected the youth stories with public policies.

Speaker Christopher Donovan discussed how some government funding cuts result in greater costs in the long run. For instance, some states balancing budgets have enacted large cuts to mental health services. But then clients decompensate without medication or support, showing up at emergency rooms with more severe and costly problems.

Janice Gruendel of DCF described the agency's plans to restructure its work, with the recognition that the current system has had difficulties. Among the obstacles she'd like addressed: too many resources used for back-end crisis management instead of front-end prevention; requirement that there be abuse or neglect in order for DCF to serve a family, which disqualifies some who need help and stigmatizes others; and clear federal and state restrictions that keep DCF from sharing information with other agencies.

Kristina Stevens of Casey Family Services echoed the need for changes at DCF. She noted that 80% of families served by DCF have been involved with DCF in the past. Ideally, interventions would fundamentally improve family situations instead of seeing repeat visits.

Dr. Eric Cohen said that among young people in their inpatient and overflow facilities for significant mental health conditions, approximately 20% of them are experiencing homelessness or unstable housing.  Many return for repeat visits.  Homelessness leads to severe anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, psychosis, poor nutrition and poor physical health. They are more prone to learning disabilities, while those learning disabilities are less likely to be discovered because housing instabilities cause these students to change schools frequently.  These children and their families, because of their homelessness, have a harder time keeping appointments, taking medication regularly, and otherwise following up help they need.

Monica Brase's presentation
Handout materials
CTN video of the forum

Check out the photos from the event!