FAIRMONT, W.Va. – In the past year, the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness has been taking extra steps to focus on youth homelessness in the state. It’s part of a larger movement to end youth homelessness in America, spearheaded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, also known as HUD.

In 2010, the US Interagency Council on Homelessness made a goal to end homelessness by 2020. While we didn’t end homelessness by then, the national rate of people experiencing homelessness per 100,000 people decreased from 204 in 2010 to 173 in 2019, and we learned new tactics and tools to help house and keep people housed.

One thing that HUD found is that, though youth homelessness, ages 18 to 24, nationally only makes up about 8% of the homeless population, this population is more likely to experience homelessness again in their lifetime because they have a lack of experience living on their own.

“When you’re working with an individual that is maybe, for example, 50 years old that has lived in housing, paid their own rent, and then becomes homeless, they have that lived experience of understanding how to budget and manage their own tenancy,” explained Lauren Frederick, Policy Development Officer at WVCEH, “but when we’re working with youth that are coming directly out of the state system, they’re often lacking living skills and just the understanding of how to maintain a lease and pay your rent.”

Youth who experience homelessness are also especially vulnerable to many other hardships, including traumatic stress and human trafficking. According to a study by The Modern Slavery Research Project, one in five of the homeless youth they interviewed in 10 different cities were identified as victims of human trafficking.

The West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness started working on figuring out the specific needs of the state’s youth and targeting resources for those needs in 2017. The first step was to partner with other state and local systems to collect and analyze local data.

“Up until recently, we did not have any youth specific funding, so we knew youth were entering our system, and we were tracking that, but they were just lumped in with every other population,” explained Frederick, “so we wanted to extrapolate that information to see where the largest number of youth that were entering into our system was, and then also look at [if] they [had] previous foster care or juvenile justice involvement.”

100 Day Challenge

The Rapid Results Institute, in partnership with A Way Home America and Homebase, developed an initiative to challenge communities to make progress on housing youth, which ended up receiving support from HUD. The initiative gives communities 100 days to develop systems to house as many youth as possible, and to come up with an ambitious goal to house youth while planning and identifying gaps.

In January 2020, The Rapid Results Institute announced that West Virginia was invited to participate in the challenge, alongside four other communities. The West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness attended a workshop with the other communities in South Carolina to establish their goals, and they decided to target the Monongalia, Marion, and Harrison counties.

HUD Cohort 5, Central Alabama, Charleston, SC, Jacksonville, FL, Monroe County, FL, and West Virginia, met in South Carolina to come up with a plan to house as many youth as possible.

Then, the initiative was postponed because of the coronavirus, and the challenge time frame was shorten to 75 days and each community had to re-evaluate their initial goal.

“Our goal was to house 35 youth,” said Frederick, “and we have to set goals that are almost unattainable, right? Because that’s the point of this challenge, but we did safely house or reunify 17 youth and young adults.”

Between the beginning of the 100 Day Challenge and this past March, the coalition served 385 youth or young adults across the 44 counties they cover. 173 of those served were safely reunified or connected with permanent housing resources.

“This was before we had any specific youth funding or programs, so I feel like during a global pandemic that was pretty impressive,” Frederick said.

One statistic to look at when it comes to homelessness is retention rates, or the rate of people who were able to stay housed after being connected to permanent housing. The coalition found that, while retention rates for adult and family programs averaged at 90%, the youth rate was only about 60%. They realized that they were lacking the additional support that was needed to keep a young person in housing.

Youth Action Board

Through the 100 Day Challenge, the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness realized that in order to best serve youth experiencing homelessness, they needed people on their team who are youth who experienced homelessness. They started a Youth Action Board, which includes those youth with lived experience and state entities and local providers to figure out how to strengthen their supportive services, mental health resources, substance use disorder services, employment services, and peer support. This strategy to include all of these services in addition to housing people is referred to as “wraparound services.” One idea they came up with is having a “housing navigator” work with the youth to provide these services.

“They connect them with employment and education resources, but then also just following the lease, making sure you have a guest policy in place to make sure you don’t have tons of traffic so the landlord doesn’t get upset, a crisis plan–if there’s an emergency in your apartment, who do you call?–and then, also, working on budgeting and in obtaining income to even be able to budget,” explained Frederick.

Even though I did have places to go, I felt like I was alone during that time because I didn’t have anyone I felt like I could talk to about it. I just kind of showed up places, asked if I could stay and do my laundry, charge my phone, and stay the night.

I feel like it was empowering, in a way, to go through it by myself because it showed me that I’ve got myself and that I could survive through it. I just felt like I had to survive.

J.J. Cayton on experiencing homelessness

One member, J.J. Cayton, had experienced homelessness and being in foster care, and he uses those experiences to advocate for the services he wishes he had.

“One of the issues I think that youth have coming out of the foster care system is they need connections to better mental health resources, and maybe that youth collaboration. And, I just feel like that’s something I wish I could have had more of,” said Cayton.

Now, the coalition is looking for people to join the board. Anyone between 18 and 24 who has experienced housing insecurity or homelessness, or previous involvement in the juvenile justice or foster care system, in their lifetime can reach out to J.J. by emailing him at askjj@wvceh.org. The youth on the board are also stipend for their time.

Foster Youth to Independence Initiative

While a survey from Chapin Hall indicates that one in ten youth endures some form of homelessness in a year, youth who age out of the system are more likely to be that one. Because of their high risk factors, an initiative targeted at those youth was started.

“When you think about someone who might be coming out of foster care and they don’t have a family or support system to go to, and while the housing might be one basic level of support for them, there’s still so many things that are involved in just living and these support services can insure the most success that we can give them,” explained Christal Crouso, Executive Director of the Fairmont-Morgantown Housing Authority.

The Foster Youth to Independence Initiative was created by HUD and is used in many other states since July 2019. In West Virginia, the initiative started in Charleston and is now making its way to the Fairmont-Morgantown Housing Authority. In addition to providing these youth with financial support in the form of housing vouchers, they are also assigned a case manager who will help them with some of those wraparound services. Crouso said that several organizations in the community have already started offering help with the program.

“It’s really come together. Makes me proud of our community. It really does. Seeing us all rally together for this program,” said Crouso.

This initiative also seeks to close a gap where youth transitioning out of foster care might have felt if they needed assistance, they only had the option to sign themselves back into care or go to college. It provides another option to allow a youth to go into trade school or go straight to work instead.

“It’s hard to focus on your education when you don’t have a stable home to live in, so maybe they’re interested in taking some time to figure out what they want to do, working part time, having a stable home to live in and then talk about education, so it gives them that option instead of saying, the day you turn 18, you have to pick this or there’s nothing else,” explained Frederick.

For more information on the FYI Initiative, joining the Youth Action Board, and other youth services, contact J.J. Cayton at 304-476-5557 or Lauren Frederick at 304-282-6330. If you are youth or anyone experiencing homelessness seeking assistance, contact the WVCEH at 1-833-722-2014.