Hard to count, the faces of Philly’s homeless youth are often hidden

homeless Philadelphia
Dave Halbert, 28, is having a hard time getting back on his feet after he became homeless three years ago. (Credit: Rikard Larma / Metro).

You won’t find 28-year-old Dave Halbert among Philadelphia’s official tally of its homeless population.

Nor will his name appear in any social services registries or shelter logs.

Halbert, like many young homeless people, travels under the radar, making it difficult for advocates to assess the scope of the need and petition for valuable resources to address it.

The city is only able to count the homeless individuals who access social services, according to a spokeswoman from the Office of Supportive Housing.

Nonprofit People’s Emergency Center has several methods of counting the city’s homeless population, but they, too, have proved to be inadequate.

After successfully petitioning the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to include housing-related questions in a nationwide youth survey and analyzing responses from Philadelphia high school students, PEC found the number of homeless youth to be much higher than the organization’s past estimates.

“The number of youth who voluntarily shared they were housed in an unstable manner were much more than the number of youth who we’ve been serving earlier in the system or through other counts had identified needed services,” director Farrah Jimenez said, noting the statistics reflect just those students who actually showed up to class.

“People have a certain image in their mind, I think, of what a homeless person looks like,” said Covenant House director Cordella Hill, noting the homeless youth outreach nonprofit has seen the demand for their services skyrocket in recent years.

“If we’re using the same methods to count adult homeless, this homelessness doesn’t look like that. They might ride a train a lot longer than someone else does, they might stay with friends or friends of friends, they might try to stay in an abandoned building. They try to travel in groups, but more anything, they try latch onto friends or other people and really just hide in plain sight.”

‘Don’t have the motivation to keep going’

A Chicago native, Halbert married young and worked two full-time jobs to support his wife as she attended medical school.

He said his wife, claiming he was never home, began conducting an affair with a classmate, leading to a painful divorce followed by what he described as a mental breakdown.

“I stopped going to work,” Halbert said.

“Little by little, I started losing everything I had until I emptied out my bank account. I lost my apartment and I didn’t have anyone or anywhere to go, so I just started traveling.”

Halbert first drifted with friends, but acquaintances quickly tired of hosting him on their couches.

He was just 25.

Halbert used food stamps while staying in Baltimore, but his wallet containing his access card and all of his identification was stolen.

“Now I don’t have a way to get social services,” he said, noting he doesn’t stay in one place long enough for it to make much of a difference.

Halbert said by the time he recovered from the heartbreak and came “back to reality,” he’d fallen so far, he now has a difficult time believing he’ll ever recover.

“I’d find jobs, but nothing I could really hang onto without having a place to sleep, live, wash up and lay my head at night,” he said.

“I don’t have the motivation to keep going.”

Hill said that’s why it’s important to identify and reach out to homeless youth before they become adults.

“This population needs to separated out – they’re not children, they’re not adults – it’s this chasm that has particular needs and is really capable of learning and achieving,” she said.

“I really think if we address this population, we can really put a dent in adult homelessness and longterm homelessness because they are capable, they can learn, they’re still hopeful at that point. You can really work with this age group and try to turn their situation around so adult homelessness or longterm homelessness is not the situation.”

Findings

The findings of PEC report “Homeless Youth in Philadelphia” include:

>> 8% of Philadelphia public high school students in 2011 reported experiencing homelessness.

>> The number of students who said they’d been abandoned, kicked out or run away more than doubled from 2009 to 2011.

>> Of homeless youth, only 16% reported sleeping in a shelter or public place. The rest stayed with family, friends or strangers, meaning they’re likely to have gone uncounted by the city or social services agencies.

Taking action

Hill emphasized the need to tailor services to fit the needs of homeless teenagers.

“We need to definitely look at transitional housing for this population,” she said.

“As we keep talking about permanent housing, it’s not a reality for an 18, 19 or 20-year-old. They need to learn the skills it’s going to take to maintain a household.

“You can’t be 17, 18 and know how to budget, how to pay your bills on time, what it’s going to take to negotiate with your landlord – just all the things that come with running a household. Those things need to be taught, which is why I’m saying that for this population, transitional housing becomes something important, giving them the opportunity to learn independent living skills.”

Jimenez said the PEC report resulted in several suggestions for further action.

“What we do know from the survey, simply put, is there are more children who need some form of intervention through our public school system so we can better reduce the likelihood that they will have negative outcomes in their future,” she said.

But she said the availability of resources can make little difference if they’re too complicated to access.

“That is probably the primary recommendation, which is the more effective we are at working with one another across our sectors – which is not easy, because you’re talking about huge institutions like the School District, city government and nonprofits – but the better we are at working together and simplifying the experience for the ultimate customer, which is the young person, the more effect we’ll have.”

Jimenez hopes to incorporate some of the report’s findings in her work with the state Task Force on Homeless Children’s Education signed into law last year and tasked with determining best practices to connect homeless youths with services.

“As with any initial study, it gives you some more information, but then you start to peel it away and at the end, you’re looking for answers to new questions. Now, the question is, what do we do with that information?” she said, adding that her organization is trying to help arrive at answers not just through the issuance of the report, but by convening three to four workshops this year to publicize and discuss youth homelessness research conducted by PEC and other organizations.

The next meeting is slated for the early fall.

“We want to help get researchers and activists and social services providers and educators in a room together to get informed,” Jimenez said.

“But also to challenge our solace and figure out, now that we have the information, what we can do to tackle the problem.”


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