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Evaluation of the HUD Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program: Early Implementation Report

Evaluation of the HUD Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program: Early Implementation Report

In the last decade, federal entities responsible for addressing homelessness have paid increasing attention to the situation of youth who are experiencing or are at risk of experiencing homelessness. In 2013, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) issued a comprehensive community response for preventing and ending youth homelessness. A growing awareness about the special needs of youth — in particular, vulnerable groups such as pregnant and parenting youth and youth identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning (LGBTQ) — led HUD, its federal partners, and youth to design the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP) in 2016. YHDP builds on the USICH framework, encouraging communities to develop and implement their own coordinated community approaches to prevent and end homelessness among youth aged 14 to 24. Since YHDP began, HUD has provided 44 Continuums of Care (CoC) with $151 million over 3 rounds of funding. CoCs must use their funds to bring together a variety of stakeholders to create coordinated community plans to assess the needs of youth, particularly high-risk populations such as racial and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ youth. While preparing these coordinated community plans, YHDP-funded CoCs also needed to create Youth Advisory Boards (YABs) to involve youth aged 24 and younger in the planning and implementation of programs. Grantees had 1 year to develop their coordinated community plans, and they were able to work with technical assistance providers on the development and implementation of these plans.

The Evaluation of the HUD Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program: Early Implementation Report is a cross-site assessment of the initial efforts of the first 10 CoCs funded in round one of YHDP. The report provides important insights about how the implementation of coordinated community plans affect the size and composition of the population of youth who are experiencing or are at risk of experiencing homelessness. By comparing the 10 YHDP round one sites with 3 similar peer CoCs that did not receive YHDP funds, this report sets the stage for a comprehensive, longer-term study about how systems-level approaches can effectively address the challenges of youth homelessness in numerous contexts.

Research Design and Methods

The report is the first component a longitudinal comparative case study that assesses the baseline of systems designed for youth who are experiencing or are at risk of homelessness; determines what changes to systems have improved the coordination and availability of housing, services, and supports for youth; and examines how these changes have affected the size and composition of the population of youth experiencing homelessness. Researchers organized the evaluation around seven questions that explore various aspects of the community planning process, including how YHDP shaped the way that funded CoCs developed and implemented coordinated community plans.

Researchers were especially interested in the perspectives of youth and cross-sector collaborators to better understand which community planning and implementation strategies worked well. To answer these research questions, the evaluators collected data through document review; site visits to the 10 YHDP communities and 3 peer CoCs, including interviews with stakeholders and focus groups with youth; Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data on all youth served in calendar year 2017; and a web survey of youth homeless systems in all other U.S. CoCs the findings of which will be published soon. The data were collected at intervals: 2 years into the demonstration program, 1 year after the sites had completed their coordinated community plans, and after sites began to implement projects funded through YHDP. The national survey will be repeated in 2 years to compare changes between YHDP-funded CoCs and other U.S. CoCs.

Major Findings

Numerous themes and findings emerged from the analysis of baseline conditions, development of coordinated community plans, and implementation of projects. Among the 10 YHDP-funded sites, CoCs varied in how developed their systems for youth homelessness were before the demonstration program began. Three CoCs (Austin/Travis County, Cincinnati/Hamilton County, and Seattle/King County) had highly developed systems, three CoCs (Connecticut Balance of State, Ohio Balance of State, and San Francisco) had medium-developed systems, and the remainder (Anchorage, Kentucky Balance of State, Northwest Michigan, and Santa Cruz) either had limited systems or were starting to develop system-level responses to youth homelessness. This initial state of program development determined how YHDP grantees approached the use of their funds. CoCs with highly developed systems used YHDP funding to refine their systems — for example, investing in diversion assistance and navigation services to reduce the number of youth entering the homeless services system and help connect youth with needed housing and services. CoCs with less developed systems used the demonstration funds for a wider range of projects. Compared with the 3 peer CoCs (Sonoma County, Memphis, and Colorado Balance of State) and CoCs nationally, the 10 YHDP sites were more likely to have youth-specific plans and to actively engage youth in their homelessness strategies. All 10 sites used YHDP funding for housing interventions, and the most common proposed interventions were rapid rehousing and host homes.

Although YHDP funding increased cross-agency collaborations with a range of partners in the CoCs, the nature of these collaborations varied. CoC coordination was strongest with child welfare, education, and behavioral health agencies, and it was weakest with juvenile justice and healthcare systems. The YHDP Balance of State sites, each of which covered a large geographic area containing many counties, struggled with cross-sector coordination because of the number of individuals involved. Governance structures and coordination of community partners challenged several YHDP sites. In Anchorage, Santa Cruz, and Cincinnati/Hamilton County, the lead CoC agency was also the youth provider, and technical assistance was needed to encourage CoC leadership to engage more partners and obtain buy-in. Although all sites had to engage youth by developing YABs to inform the development of a coordinated community plan, the sites experienced numerous hurdles to forming YABs, including a lack of adequate preparation, a lack of structure or leadership, inconsistent meeting attendance, and high rates of turnover. In focus groups, youth offered their perspectives about the challenges they experienced in youth homelessness systems, including a lack of youth-specific resources, baseline coordinated entry systems that were not youth friendly, and assessment tools that prioritized youth who were currently experiencing homelessness over those who were living in unsafe conditions and at risk of sexual or substance abuse.

Baseline 2017 HMIS data across sites about the size and composition of the population of youth experiencing homelessness, the types of services that these youth received, and the housing outcomes of youth served provide a valuable basis for a future analysis of how YHDP influenced populations and services provided in the 10 sites as well as in the peer sites. Several population indicators show that trends among youth served in the 10 YHDP sites did not match trends in the general population. For example, non-White youth were overrepresented in HMIS data; in Cincinnati/Hamilton County, for example, more than 70 percent of youth identified as Black or African-American compared with 27 percent of youth in the general population. Rates of youth identifying as transgender or gender nonconforming were higher in the 2017 HMIS data than in most national estimates, with youth in San Francisco registering higher rates of unreported gender than those at other sites. Coordinated entry and emergency shelter were the most common services that youth received. Fewer than 4 percent of youth across sites received permanent housing or permanent supportive housing, a key finding given the high rates of disabling conditions such as chronic physical and mental health conditions and substance abuse problems among youth.

Implications

The evaluation provides opportunities to better understand how to develop and implement coordinated systems for youth experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness, with a particular focus on what services most effectively address the needs of youth. Readers need to be aware of several implications as the evaluation of YHDP continues. Because YHDP sites had variable youth homelessness systems in place at baseline, the evaluation must sensitively gauge the changes occurring in different sites. Systemic improvements might increase the number of youth served regardless of whether the overall population of homeless youth has changed. Other broader factors, such as economic and policy changes, might also affect the number of homeless youth served regardless of systemic improvements. One key limitation of the study is the variation in the quality and completeness of HMIS data, which might complicate the conclusiveness of comparative analysis. Qualitative measures of systemic change can help contextualize analysis of sites with incomplete quantitative data.