Helping Homeless Youth Means Counting Them When School Is Out
For Louanna Fowler, becoming homeless didn't happen little by little — it happened all at once. One day she was living in a foster home, the next, she had aged out and was on the street.
"When I first got homeless, I didn't have a tent, I didn't have a blanket, and it was snowing outside," Fowler said. "So that same year that I was out there in the snow, this young guy died from freezing to death, so that was really scary to me."
Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of Fowler's story is that her descent into homelessness wasn't a surprise. She saw it coming. She was first placed in foster care at 5 years old. And before she aged out at 18, she lived in a staggering number of homes — 156 foster placements.
"Sadly I kind of knew that was going to happen, because I had watched a lot of former foster siblings that I had end up in the same situation," she said. "I had tried to plan, but I didn't know my family or where they were so I didn't have no one to turn to."
"Targeting youth homelessness is the best way to end homelessness overall." Caleb Bay
Enter the project Youth Count. Its goal is to confirm how many young people like Fowler are out there. But doing it for the first time in June may expose some tough truths, said Caleb Bay, vice chair of the count in Dallas and Collin counties.
"We know anecdotally that a lot of times youth's housing status changes in the summer after school gets out," Bay said. "So we know that from stories from youth and working with them, but we want to see if the data supports that."
For several years, homeless people age 24 and younger were tallied each January. Next week, though, brings the first ever June counts.
Bay said sometimes young people crash with a friend during the school year, but over summer the friend's parents may be uneasy about an unsupervised guest at the house all day. So the kid who was able to lay low from August to May might suddenly be out on the streets in June.
"We want to see what it looks like, how many folks are out there, who's out there and what agencies can do to better serve them," he said.
This effort is designed to do more than simply count. The survey will also gather information about past experiences with homelessness, race, sexual orientation and gender identity. Bay said this information helps service providers get homeless young people exactly what they need.
"When we have the data to support that, we can better justify housing programs that are specifically for LGBT youth," Bay said.
This youth count will focus on "hot spots" in Dallas and Collin Counties, places that are popular hubs for the homeless. There's Deep Ellum, DART stops and public libraries, both downtown and suburban branches. Bay warns it's easy to make assumptions.
"Young people who are homeless are still young people," Bay said. "And they still care about fashion trends and having the latest iPhone. Not all of them can get that, but the ones who can, that's still important to them. They still have those social circles and young people are really good at hiding their homelessness."
While getting a true count is not easy, adding counting dates in June might make the Youth Count the most accurate it's ever been. And while this exercise might zero in on people under 24, Bay said there's a major ripple effect.
"Targeting youth homelessness is the best way to end homelessness overall."
That's something that resonates with Louanna Fowler. She's 24 now and no longer on the street. She lives with her two-year-old daughter in an apartment she found through CitySquare, a nonprofit with a program that helps kids aging out of foster care. She now works there, as a member of the AmeriCorps team.
When she was homeless, what she wanted most of all, was guidance. "Not having no one to ask, 'What do I do' or 'Where do I go?' You just... it's really confusing and scary," she said.
The hope is that the more homeless young people counted this June, the easier it will be to guide them down a safer path.
The youth count is scheduled for June 17 and June 21. Learn more about the count, as well as volunteer opportunities.
Learn more about North Texans living on the financial edge through One Crisis Away.