Chapin Hall initiative seeks better estimate, understanding of homeless youth

Researchers will document the number of runaway and homeless youths in the United States as part of a new two-year initiative from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago aimed at producing the country’s first reliable estimate of its kind.

Launched June 25, the Voices of Youth Count will use a multi-layered approach to produce a more complete picture of youth homelessness. Chapin Hall Executive Director Bryan Samuels, MPP’93, said one of the biggest challenges for researchers will be locating a population that is unseen and often intentionally stays in the shadows.

“In addition to the counts, we will survey and interview a couple of thousand young people, as well as community providers, and those who come in contact with them,” said Samuels. “We want to understand who they are and their life experiences, in an effort to ultimately change public policy and improve the quality of services they receive.”

Samuels said approximately 25 cities were selected from across the country, to conduct youth counts, including urban, suburban and rural communities. Chapin Hall researchers will oversee the process, but will partner with local organizations in each of those areas. Chapin Hall is a policy research center focusing on vulnerable children, families and their communities.

For Andrea Durbin, AM’93, chief executive officer for the Illinois Collaboration on Youth, a statewide non-profit organization that helps at-risk youths, this project is promising because it will help identify what services this population needs most.

“Getting a better sense of how many young people are homeless or at risk of homelessness and what their various pathways were to becoming homeless, will really help us focus our resources,” said Durbin. “We want to be supportive to help them transition to a positive adulthood.” 

The fact that this research aims to change public policy is important to April Curtis, who has been homeless and is also an alumna of the Illinois Child Welfare System. Curtis is also a founding member of the Foster Care Alumni of America, an organization with chapters in 19 states that will help with this research effort.  

“Whether homeless for a day or homeless for a year, these young people are experiencing it, and it impacts their lives,” said Curtis. “Oftentimes, it’s a hidden problem. College students and working teens and young adults can be homeless, and you wouldn’t know it.”

Samuels added that Chapin Hall knows this is not a one-size-fits-all problem with an easy solution. “In doing this work, we also hope to document subcategories of young people who are runaway and homeless,” said Samuels. “We think each population has their own story to tell, and each story may represent a different pathway to finding solutions. Something that works for young people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered may not work for other young people. Prevention and intervention efforts aimed at minority youth may not meet the needs of pregnant or parenting youth.”

While the federal government has relatively accurate numbers of homeless adults, no comparable information exists for young people.