Formerly homeless youth and advocacy organizations in California say an increase in federal funds will boost the state’s ability to prevent homelessness
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded four California communities a combined $37 million to combat youth homelessness — an entrenched problem endangering the health and safety of thousands of young people statewide.
The infusion of federal funds is much-needed in a state with the country’s largest share of homeless youth.
“We went from not even mentioning youth homelessness six years ago — when we would say it was ‘family homelessness’ — to then having a vision centered around youth experiences and funds set aside for resources for our young people,” said Steven Jellá, associate executive director for San Diego Youth Services.
Young people in the U.S. are categorized as homeless for a variety of reasons. Some are clearly apparent: they live on the street, or in abandoned buildings and shelters. Others less so:
Across the country during the point-in-time count in January of last year, more than 34,200 children and young adults under age 25 were homeless without a parent or guardian present, according to the annual HUD-mandated count. In large urban areas, these homeless youth were more likely to identify as Black or Latino.
California is home to more than a third of the “homeless unaccompanied youth” population — with 12,172 counted in 2020, an annual increase of 179 youth. The HUD methodology notes point-in-time counts are generally considered an undercount, because it is a snapshot of one day. Definitions for “homeless youth” vary, but generally refer to unaccompanied children under age 18 living apart from adult guardians, or youth aged 16 to 25 — also called “transition-age youth” — who are disconnected from families.
The urban, suburban and rural California communities that received HUD funding this year to tackle the crisis include Los Angeles city and county; Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda County; Salinas, Monterey and San Benito counties; and the cities of San Jose and Santa Clara, as well as Santa Clara County.
The funds awarded in California are part of a larger $142 million that HUD distributed to 33 communities around the country last month under its Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program. Nationwide, Los Angeles and New York City, respectively, received the largest awards: $15 million each.
The homeless demonstration program targets regions combating youth homelessness through collaborations between housing and service providers, local government and community members. The funds are awarded to each region’s “continuum of care” — local groups responsible for coordinating homeless services and overseeing the spending of federal grants. Young people, including youth who are currently or formerly homeless, are central to the collaborations and can be paid a stipend from the funds to help shape plans to end youth homelessness.
In 2018, HUD awarded grant funding to 11 communities including San Diego, which received nearly $8 million to support a system that matched homeless youth with housing and other services such as mental health care.
According to federal data, the spending paid off: San Diego County has decreased its homeless youth population from 928 in 2018 to 659 in 2020. In the same period, those youth designated “unsheltered” — meaning they slept outside, in a vehicle or in some other non-designated sleeping area — dropped from 659 to 297.
Jellá said his region’s multimillion-dollar federal grant galvanized local efforts and improved service options so young people don’t have to compete with older adults for resources and housing units — a problem highlighted in a report released Monday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The grant “changed the game and changed the conversation,” he said. “Our community couldn’t hide the $8 million dropped in to address youth homelessness, regardless of whether we had the political will.”
Despite the bounty, advocates say California has not received its fair share of federal youth homelessness funds, given the scope of the problem in the Golden State.
Since 2017, more than $290 million in federal funds have been issued to 77 communities across the U.S. But despite having more than a third of the nation’s homeless youth, California has only received about $50 million, or roughly 17%, according to HUD data. No funds were distributed to California in 2019.
For decades, there was no federal plan and no federal funding targeted specifically for unaccompanied teens and young adults. Federally funded homeless prevention programs focused mainly on young people who were part of homeless families, or those living alone in shelters.
There was also little understanding of youth aging out of foster care, exiting the criminal legal system, surviving human trafficking, parenting or couch surfing. “We couldn’t prove it outside of the lived experience of youth we served,” Jellá said.
But HUD’s methodology to account for homeless youth has changed. In 2013, the federal agency shifted from counting them as either children under 18 or members of homeless families, to specifically counting unaccompanied children and youth.
Patrick Gem Gabbett, a 23-year-old Sacramento City College student who is trans and non-binary, is still searching for stable housing and wants to avoid another temporary housing arrangement, especially another shelter. They are among those Californians too often left under-served.
For Gabbett, the cycle of homelessness began in early adolescence when their family, experiencing housing instability, stayed with friends off-and-on and in a shelter for a month. At age 18, when Gabbett had aged out of foster care, they couch surfed and stayed in a youth homeless shelter for six months while they graduated from high school.
“I’ve stayed in overnight shelters and felt terribly unsafe. Trans people face violence in shelters,” Gabbett said. “I believe every person deserves to have housing.”
A closer look at California’s 12,172 homeless youth last year reveals 9,510, or about 78%, were “unsheltered,” meaning they slept in a vehicle, on the street or in a park, or another place not regularly used for sleeping accommodations, according to statewide data reported to Congress. The roughly 2,660 homeless youth considered “sheltered” were counted in places like emergency shelters, transitional housing or temporary “safe havens” for hard-to-serve individuals.
After turning 18 in the child welfare system, Gabbett received housing benefits through the extended foster care system serving 18 through 21-year-olds, and later moved into transitional housing for former foster youth in Sacramento County. Now, they have a year left in their stay before having to find stable housing.
“If I didn’t have this, I would be on the street or couch surfing,” Gabbett said. “I don’t think people understand how difficult it is to break the cycle of homelessness. When you age out, society says, ‘You should’ve learned how to be independent by now.’ But many of us have children, or substance dependence, or trauma, or disabilities that prevent us from being able to hold jobs.”
Gabbett is not alone. Although California provided foster youth housing benefits through age 21, many lose their housing immediately thereafter, or fail to complete court-ordered conditions for the assistance — that they work, study or train for a job.
In Sacramento County, where Gabbett lives, 415 transition age youth were homeless in 2019, with nearly a third saying they’d spent time in foster care or a group home before age 18, according to HUD data. Of the 415 homeless youth, 56% said they planned to sleep outsideThe report noted these youth — half of whom were Black and almost one-quarter Latino — faced increased vulnerability, including the risks of criminalization, sexual exploitation and substance use.
Jellá said in San Diego County, providers are still adjusting to the “newness” of having a specific youth focus, and being able to tailor programs to age-specific and demographic needs.
“Do you give a shelter bed or apartment to a 49-year-old or 19-year-old? Usually, the triage model says the 49-year-old gets it,” Jellá said. “Young people are getting passed over and put in more vulnerable situations. What we’re saying is, ‘Go get worse and accumulate more bad experiences so you can compete with adults.’”
Now, counselors and other service providers are being retrained to understand how young people survive the trauma of homelessness, gathering data and creating a more targeted response to their needs, Jellá said.
The GAO report released Nov. 1 underscored such concerns, finding HUD-funded programs tended to prioritize beds and services for chronically homeless adults over young people.
“Some providers said young adults generally have not been homeless long enough to qualify as chronically homeless, and a few noted that youth are less likely to have a documented disability than older adults.”
“Officials stated they do not view the chronically homeless population as being in competition with young adults,” the report said. “According to HUD officials, while youth are much less likely to experience chronic homelessness than older adults, some youth do.”
In interviews with the federal government watchdog, youth described their frustrations.
“It’s hard to get into any programs unless you’re literally on the streets with a mental health issue,” an unnamed young person said.
“It is frustrating to tell your story, and then providers tell you that you will not get services,” said another young adult. “They should be able to listen and serve you, but when they tell you they don’t have services, that’s the breaking point.”
Simone Tureck Lee, director of housing and health for nonprofit group John Burton Advocates for Youth, described how vital that work is.
“Youth are sometimes screened out because they haven’t been alive long enough to qualify as experiencing chronic homelessness or mental illness, which may not present the same at that young age,” she said. “We need a system that understands the unique needs of youth and where they are in terms of homelessness.”