No issue dominates big city politics right now like homelessness. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio have come in for the harshest criticism of their tenures over proliferating tent villages and visible human suffering on their sidewalks.
But one growing segment of the homeless population remains overlooked: Teens and young adults who find themselves living on the streets, in shelters, or couch surfing, alone and without family. For this unique group — 36,361 people younger than 25, out of more than 550,000 homeless counted on one night last year — the National Symposium to End Youth Homelessness is emerging as an idea-generating, consciousness-raising Super Bowl.
The event has been held on New York University’s campus for the last three years. It has grown from around 350 people in a single conference room for one day, to nearly 1,000 advocates, scholars, service providers, policymakers and youth teeming around a tower overlooking Greenwich Village for three days (in one of the most expensive zip codes in the United States, no less).
Featured speakers at this year’s conference, held last week, included Parkland High School shooting survivor Mei-Ling Ho-Shing; Minneapolis councilwoman Andrea Jenkins, the first openly transgender black woman to hold elected office; and Dominique Jackson, star of FX’s hit show Pose.
The conductor in front of this symphony was Larry Cohen, executive director of the host organization, Point Source Youth (PSY). Cohen co-founded PSY with pioneering HIV/AIDS advocate and institution builder Ronald Johnson in 2015 to provide technical support and raise awareness nationwide on the distinct needs of homeless youth.
With staffers based in big cities from coast to coast, the nonprofit has established itself as an influencer in high-need regions. Youth homelessness service providers and youth themselves describe the organization as a “mediator,” “a shoulder to cry on” and a “hype machine” for novel ideas in the field.
We sat down with Cohen, in front of a bank of windows overlooking Washington Square Park, to discuss the growing popularity of the conference and the key issues in youth homelessness.
The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
It seems like a really diverse group here at the symposium. Is it mostly youth with homelessness experience here?
It’s a lot of youth here. We don’t allow economic barriers to prevent anyone from coming to the conference. We offer scholarships for them to come here to speak, we also pay youth to plan, staff and run the conference. So maybe a third to 40 percent of those in attendance are people who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness recently.
The others in attendance are from foundations, executive directors, social workers, case managers, and government and city officials. Our goal is to get everyone in the room together who is affected and cares about the issue and wants to do more to solve it.
And this conference is focused on unaccompanied homeless youth, right? I’m not sure the public is distinguishing between the needs of families with children that are homeless, homeless adults and seniors, and unaccompanied youth, just yet.
Over 3 million young people in a given year in the United States are unaccompanied homeless [according to a recent Chapin Hall study]. Family and individual homelessness are also growing, big problems. But at Point Source our focus is on solutions to help scale up for those [unaccompanied] young people with a sense of urgency.
Do most of the professionals here work directly on homelessness issues, or are there people from other systems and issues?
It’s really intersecting four big movements: The LGBTQ-plus movement and the Trans Movement for Trans rights and safety; and broader social justice movements, like our panel on the movement for black lives. There’s definitely the homeless and youth homelessness sector who comes. And the last one is the HIV and AIDS sector, because youth experiencing homelessness are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS.
It’s all those different groups coming together. It’s kind of the only conference of its kind that does that. I came to this after selling a software company, so I wasn’t entrenched in the ways of the youth homelessness landscape.
How much disagreement on solutions do you think there is in these rooms this week?
There’s a lot of people here from rural communities and the rural south. I gave a very emotional speech today to everybody. It wasn’t sugarcoated. But if people feel your heart, they care. I don’t think people disagree. Even people you think would disagree, if they hear this, they won’t. Hearts cross everything.
You also have a lot of experience working directly on HIV and AIDS, right? Tell me more about how that informs your work today on homelessness issues.
I grew up in Miami, where I experienced the trauma that I talked about in my speech [delivered at the Symposium earlier in the day]. I studied public policy at University of California, Berkeley because I kinda wanted to save the world.
When I graduated, I worried I would get HIV. And back then, there were no effective treatments. So my first job was as the director of the National AIDS Treatment Advocacy Project here in New York City. That’s where I met Ronald Johnson, one of my co-founders of Point Source Youth. He was Mayor Dinkins’ and then Mayor Giuliani’s point person on HIV. He was basically the first New York City AIDS czar. He was one of the first people on television really representing the population that was affected.
The HIV/AIDS movement dealt with it in really specific ways. They pushed, they chained themselves to fences, they had direct action. And that urgency inspired a lot of the work at Point Source, in that we can push to do more. Also, in HIV, what really transformed the disease was the right combination of therapies, which took a while to prove. (The government and Reagan could have done a lot better at funding that, to prove that stuff worked in terms of research.)
And so at Point Source we have a big research component. Any Point Source partner enrolls in our research program. We work with Eric Rice at the University of Southern California and Robin Petering, founder of the research firm Lens Co, to evaluate everything. We’ll tell a funder: ‘I can tell you that for your support our partner will have a specific number of youth housed, and those youth will take a survey every three months for two years, and we’ll show you what we’ve improved with our partners who are doing all these services — income, education, healthy, physical health, safety.’ That helps a lot with fundraising.
My urgency is also really inspired by the HIV/AIDS movement. People were dying, their lives were at stake. It was life and death for them personally.
What have been recent landmark moments in terms of public awareness of youth homelessness issues?
Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago did a landmark study about two years ago where they found one in 10 youth experience homelessness or unstable housing in a given year. That put a number on it. Before that, a lot of people thought it was increasing. On the field and on the ground, providers had been kind of screaming about it. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s point-in-time counts are not a comprehensive measure — they were indicating youth homelessness is going up, though.
It was kind of like the right mix of evidence coming together.
How do you create a public campaign on homelessness with the kind of urgency that HIV/AIDS activism created? What tactics would you recommend to organizers out there?
We center young people with lived experience of homelessness. We have an iMax-size screen with beautiful videos of them showing their awesomeness.
Without that stuff, if it was a $1,000-per-person conference, if we had it without young people, then you can make decisions in a vacuum and say things like, “host homes won’t work because I’m too scared of a young person in New York harming a host,” or “rapid rehousing can’t work, young people can’t have their own apartment.” Or “family strengthening won’t work because we’re saving you from bad families.”
We have a young person here at the conference who is like, “I reconnected with my family, and it was so important for me, and when I didn’t, it was so hard for me.” When he says that on an iMax screen or in person, people won’t argue with you about family strengthening. When we started Point Source, that was one of my ah-ha moments.
We are just shining a light on good work. A lot of it is about talking to participants who are resistant to new things, knocking on their doors to have tea to talk about new programs. A lot of them said they were busy at first, when we started.
Given the overlapping issues and people around foster care and youth homelessness, are there things the two systems could learn from one another?
I think the biggest lesson for the foster care system is for kids of a certain age, say 16, to put them in charge of their programs. If you don’t do that, you are just lost. You aren’t as accountable, you don’t really understand what’s happening, you don’t have your ear to the ground, and you are missing nuances. Until the affected population can run things, you are going to make lots and lots of mistakes. I think that’s probably what’s happening — especially in foster care because they are younger. Even in youth homelessness, people are not running programs enough, for sure.
You can imagine deciding things in a conference room with non-foster care individuals versus doing it with foster youth. They are gonna hold you accountable. You will think differently. They might recommend something if you weren’t in your glass box alone. That is a huge lesson for any system.
How do you fundraise, as an organization that isn’t providing a service? What would you advise for organizations that want to do more programming or organizing that is celebratory and fun like this conference with more intangible benefits?
Outcomes are helpful, the research we do with our partners. I also just work really hard at getting funding.
Arcus Foundation is the largest LGBT-issue foundation, they are a great funder. The Palette Fund was one of the first funders in youth homelessness, they are a great funder. Deutsche Bank in New York City did a lot of great homelessness work. John Kimble, formerly of Deutsche Bank, was one of our first funders and he said we should do a conference three years ago. I said “we can do that.”
The other thing that’s helpful is we have regional associate directors who work with the local partners. Somebody in the northeast, the south, rural, southern and northern California who knows local nuance and help locally. Partners really like that.
It just took writing executive directors. Every single one.
For a topic that might seem gloomy to a lot of people, this event has a pretty celebratory vibe. How did you pull that off?
Yeah. You want to inspire people. There’s a logic to it: It’s the, “I’m gonna make you famous” pitch. It’s a culture of celebration, celebrating our partners.
You can imagine writing someone and saying, “youth in your city don’t have housing and it’s immoral. You must implement our program.” Instead we have a conference and ask them to moderate a panel, and by doing that, they hear the presentation and then think they should do that too. It’s a possible snowball effect.