The Trump administration's missed opportunities on youth homelessness

The Trump administration's missed opportunities on youth homelessness
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The federal government is taking steps to end youth homelessness. But recent missteps show it’s not doing enough about the problem — and until it addresses the real dynamics that young people face, it’s going to keep coming up short. 

We know that homelessness can happen to anyone, and that young people who experience homelessness come from all different backgrounds and represent many demographics. But LGBTQ youth are 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness than their non-LGBTQ peers, and the gap is even wider for young people of color relative to white youth. These disparities are fueled by discriminatory phenomena such as the school-to-prison pipeline, over- policing, redline housing policies and other examples of homophobia, transphobia and racism. 

Unfortunately, the Trump administration seems indifferent to the structural factors that put people at risk of homelessness and keep them there. 

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This indifference was on display last month when recipients of Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) grants for runaway and homeless youth gathered in Florida for the annual Runaway and Homeless Youth Training and Technical Assistance Center (RHYTTAC) conference. Almost 1,000 individuals convened around a shared goal: learning how best to meet the needs of the young people they serve. 

But the conference missed a crucial opportunity to provide attendees with training on how to meet the needs of the most vulnerable: youth of color and LGBTQ youth. Instead, organizers stressed the role of personal responsibility, ignoring why some youths might be at particular risk and have difficulty obtaining stable housing. 

This simplistic approach ignores that two things are urgently needed: not only helping people experiencing homelessness at the individual level, but addressing structural dynamics and overhauling a homelessness system that perpetuates the problem. People should be exiting homelessness because the system that was designed to help them do so is working — not in spite of bureaucracy and red tape, and certainly not through luck, good fortune or the efforts of a particularly dedicated caseworker. 

But instead of recognizing this big picture, a persistent, harmful and one-sided theme of individual responsibility pervaded the entire conference. Messaging on the main stage suggested that addressing an individual young person’s trauma will end youth homelessness, which is true — it might help end that person’s experience of homelessness. But will it end the national crisis of youth homelessness, which impacts up to 4.2 million youths each year? 

The conversation at the conference stopped there, with no mention of bigger structural dynamics. Programming on LGBTQ or racial equity disparities was absent, and its omission is a chronic issue. In 2017, True Colors United and other presenters were asked to remove all LGBTQ language from their session submissions; mentions of LGBTQ identities are consistently absent from announcements of federal funding opportunities that might encourage people to take on these issues. 

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The emphasis on individual responsibility isn’t just rhetorical. Just days before the conference, the federal government proposed a rule that would roll back nondiscrimination protections for individuals receiving services from programs funded by the HHS. The rollback gives a green light for providers to discriminate, and makes it that much harder to ensure services are inclusive and effective at reaching those youths who are most at risk. 

The administration’s approach is out of sync with best practices on the ground. The youth homelessness movement has shined a spotlight on LGBTQ issues and racial equity, recognizing these as important factors in any effective response. It has also moved in a direction of authentic youth collaboration. The fact that RHYTTAC has no young people on its advisory board or planning committee showed. Creating space for authentic youth collaboration — and, in doing so, uplifting those most impacted by the issue — necessitates an acknowledgment of LGBTQ issues and racial equity dynamics that have been conspicuously absent from the conference. 

We applaud the brave young people who shared their stories and opinions on a panel during the last main stage session. But for real change to happen, their lived experiences should be considered a qualification for teaching best practices and held to the same level as adults in the field. In not asking these young people to facilitate workshops, the organizers missed an important opportunity to help attendees gain hands-on training from those most qualified to teach the subject — the people who’ve experienced it firsthand. 

There are multiple national initiatives working to determine how to change systems to end youth homelessness, such as the Grand Challenge, the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project, 100 Day Challenge, and the Coordinated Entry Learning Collaborative among others. Combined, these initiatives span over 80 communities nationally and are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in innovative solutions. None of these initiatives is perfect, but all of them promote structural change, transformation and youth collaboration. None was showcased at the conference. 

Meeting the needs of LGBTQ youth and youth of color is not a trend; it is not a topic that requires more or less attention from year to year. It is something that must be embedded within the culture of all systems. When designing training sessions around best practices, neither service providers nor federal agencies can afford to ignore the data that indicate where we need to improve. If the administration wants to end youth homelessness, it must put money and a willingness to learn into the equation. 

Christa Price is program director for True Colors United, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 to address youth homelessness. Follow on Twitter @TrueColorsUnite.

Jamie Powlovich is executive director of the Coalition for Homeless Youth, an umbrella organization for 66 agencies across New York. Follow on Twitter @nychyorg.