Addressing the Needs of Youth of Color Experiencing Homelessness – Part 1: Breaking Down Barriers

Published: February 5, 2018

Student homelessness disproportionately impacts youth of color – the result of a fusion of complex social forces that include generational poverty and institutional racism.

The Youth of Color Needs Assessment, a research project of The Northwest Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian & Gay Survivors of Abuse, examines the overrepresentation of youth of color among homeless and unstably housed young people in King County. The report highlights barriers and opportunities for addressing homelessness among youth of color, and provides recommendations for preventing the disproportionality that exists.

In Washington state, one in every 27 students experience homelessness over the course of the academic year. The numbers, however, trend much higher among certain racial and ethnic groups: 1 in 10 for African American/Black students; 1 in 11 for Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; 1 in 12 for American Indian/Alaska Native; and 1 in 20 for Hispanic/Latino.

Schoolhouse Washington posed questions to the report’s lead researchers and authors, Carrie Lippy and Sydney Pk, to learn more about the experiences, strengths and needs of the youth – and to generate ideas for serving them better.

This is the first installment in a two-part series:

Q: The Northwest Network supports LGTBQ survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Why did the Network pursue a research project focusing on youth of color and homelessness?

In our work, we strive to see the whole of someone’s experience. We know that LGBTQ youth and youth of color are disproportionately impacted by poverty and homelessness. Through our direct service and community engagement work, NW Network has long been a regional leader in addressing disproportionate rates of homelessness among LGBTQ youth. We offer advocacy that is flexible and responsive to queer and trans youth as they navigate homelessness, violence and other obstacles in their lives.

In policy conversations, we present a unique perspective forged through our extensive experiences showing up for youth in our communities. To support homeless youth agencies to better serve LGBTQ youth, the NW Network conducted Project EQTY (Elevating Queer and Trans Youth), a three-year project that trained and offered technical assistance to multiple agencies in our region. So in many ways this project was a natural fit for us. This research identifies and confronts the underlying conditions of oppression that keep youth of color homeless, and therefore is a huge asset to the communities we support.

Q: Your research is informed by focus groups made up of more than 100 youth of color, ages 13 to 24. Why are the perspectives of young people so vital in this work?

Our project was born out of a deep concern among leaders in the region that youth of color are not being heard. People in poverty, people struggling with homelessness and young people in general are not taken seriously when they relate their experiences and articulate their needs. Even the adults and organizations that work within communities of color, that have expertise in supporting youth of color have not historically been heard when voicing their perspectives on efforts to address homelessness in this region.

The focus groups sought to change that dynamic, giving ample room to the lives and voices of youth of color. Ultimately, our report is a tool that agencies and activists in communities of color can draw upon. It helps legitimize narratives that otherwise have been dismissed as “anecdotal” in policy and funding conversations. Overwhelmingly, the youth participants reflected back that it had been a very positive experience to be paid for their expertise and knowledge, and to share their stories of hardship, resiliency and hustle.

“Youth of color have so much input to share for our efforts to end homelessness. It’s our responsibility as adults in leadership and support roles to listen.”

Q: What input of theirs helps explain why youth of color are overrepresented among young people experiencing homelessness?

The young people who participated in our focus groups shared countless stories about the systemic racism they experience and the complex institutions, policies and practices that uphold it. They made clear that in order to effectively address disproportionality in homelessness among youth of color, we must make concerted efforts to address the underlying policies and practices at our agencies and within our social and professional networks that foster racial inequities. These barriers are what drive communities of color into homelessness to begin with.

Q: What are some of the barriers that youth of color experiencing homelessness face when they seek support from schools?

One major barrier that youth identified is mandatory reporting. Several young people had direct experiences of seeking support from teachers or staff at their school, and because of the nature of what they shared, the school filed a report that resulted in the young person being removed from their family or harmed in other ways. Many other young people shared that the fear of these consequences stopped them from seeking support in the first place from people at their school.

Other barriers that focus group participants described included challenges getting helpful resources from time- and resource-strapped school counselors. Several youth of color mentioned individual teachers that really went above and beyond to provide support; however, none mentioned larger, coordinated efforts within their schools to provide support (with the major exception of Seattle’s Interagency Academy).

“Overall, we heard many young people describe school as a distraction to getting their needs met, not as a place to go that could support them in their efforts to find housing. This served as a strong disincentive to attend school, which naturally puts young people at risk of dropping out and not graduating.”

Q: What specific recommendations do you have for school district personnel to break down those barriers?

Many of the barriers we identified relate to punishment and the disproportionate rule enforcement or consequences for youth of color compared to their white peers. School district personnel should look closely at areas where youth who are struggling to access school are being further penalized or where responses are paired with criminal consequences. Examples include truancy fines or having police respond to fights at school. These responses increase barriers – rather than access – to school. School districts also can consider adopting a racial justice screen so that the impact of new policy changes and programs on youth of color has to be considered through a racial justice lens before being implemented.

Another way school district personnel can break down barriers is by providing increased opportunities for youth of color – especially homeless and unstably housed youth of color – to provide feedback. Youth of color in our focus groups were hungry for paid job and leadership experience. Creating avenues for leadership and integrating youth voice means that those most directly impacted by structural racism get to play a role in addressing the unique challenges in their school or community.

Read the full Youth of Color Needs Assessment here.

Continue reading Part 2

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