On a recent Thursday afternoon, Derek Smithson is hanging out with a handful of homeless young adults at Downtown's Gay and Lesbian Community Center; they have gathered to play pool, work on crafts projects and snack on Chinese food.
He's not chronically homeless; the 19-year-old is on the third day of a stint living in a shelter after his home was condemned last year. The house "was basically just rotting away because of the snow and rain," Smithson says. His mother lived with a friend while Smithson briefly stayed with his sister, "but we were not seeing eye-to-eye," so he left.
Smithson has dropped by a program called Service Access for Youth, a collaboration among several social-service agencies hosted by the GLCC to give homeless people under 25 a chance to get connected to services, or simply pick up a coat or make friends.
And though the program has existed for about two-and-a-half years, this particular afternoon marks the first time the county has shown up at the GLCC to count them as part of its annual tally of the homeless population — part of a new effort to better serve younger homeless people.
"We've traditionally had a pretty hard time finding the youth," explains Chuck Keenan, an administrator with Allegheny County's Bureau of Homeless Services. "We wanted to do a concerted effort this January to find those folks."
Each year, the county tallies the homeless in January by counting the number of people living on the streets and in shelters across the region, required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But a significant proportion of the young homeless population likely isn't making it into that count. They often stay at a friend's house, scrounge up resources to split a motel — or, when they wind up on the street, are more likely to purposefully avoid social-service agencies.
A report released last May estimates there are 240 homeless people ages 18-24 in Allegheny County, and 55,000 nationwide. But that number is widely seen as low. It's based on the annual point-in-time count, so it reflects a snapshot of only the population the county could find during a given period in January, not the total number of young people who experience homelessness across the region during an entire year. Last year, the county only found six women and three men ages 18-24 living on the street during its annual count, an "underrepresentation" that can make it difficult for the county to plan services targeted at that demographic, Keenan says.
"They want to be missed, so that fact alone means we're not accurate," explains Kathy McCauley, a consultant who authored the report on youth homelessness in Allegheny County. Young people are often reluctant to get help from social-service agencies partly because of negative past experience; roughly 30 percent have been in the foster system. About 30 percent are members of the LGBT community and "may not imagine the system is for them," McCauley says.
Her report included a number of recommendations for improving services for young homeless people, and the county has already started implementing some of them. It has relaxed requirements in some of the shelters geared toward youth, accepting people through age 24 instead of 21, and it is "actively looking for sites and partners" for a drop-in center Downtown, Keenan says.
The county, Keenan adds, is developing a plan to count, for the first time, the young homeless population in the summer months, when more people in that demographic are likely to be outside.
"It's important to intervene early. We don't want them engaging in any risky behavior — anything that could set them on the wrong path for the rest of their lives," says Keenan.
But getting a better count isn't just about more accurately describing a problem. It's about showing policymakers they can dramatically help a population without a huge financial commitment, McCauley explains. "You can say, ‘Look, we've really documented this. This is something we can do something about.'"