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Delving into the data to understand Calif.'s youth homelessness crisis

Delving into the data to understand Calif.'s youth homelessness crisis

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[Photo by Michael Mandiberg via Flickr.]

It’s a crisis with many faces — a tired teenager riding the bus for hours on end, a college student couch surfing at a friend’s apartment or even a junior tech worker saving money by living out of a trailer.

All of these young people lack stable housing, and they’re not alone. In fact, youth homelessness is being flagged as a growing problem in cities across the county, and California is at the epicenter of this crisis.  

This has become evident in my experience covering Silicon Valley, home to some of the world’s wealthiest companies and individuals but also a growing underclass of families who live out of cars or other types of improvised housing. One local school district in the poverty-stricken city of East Palo Alto reported that 42 percent of its student body was homeless. Nearly half of community college students in Santa Clara County say they were homeless or know a classmate who was homeless sometime in the last six months. Over one fifth of the nation’s homeless live in California, and a growing slice of that population is young people under the age of 25.

This subgroup is important to examine for many reasons. Being young and homeless means lacking stability at your most vulnerable stage in life, when your brain is still developing and prone to long-lasting influences. Students won’t get far with their homework if they’re crashing on a friend’s couch. Even worse, homelessness exposes young people to higher rates of violence, substance abuse, sexual assault, illnesses and mental-health disorders.

This trend is made up of myriad individuals each coping with their own hardships — but taken altogether it is ultimately a story that can be well told through data. My plan for my 2017 California Data Fellowship project is to capture the scope of youth homelessness in the Bay Area, and hopefully other parts of California. I plan to use “point in time” homeless surveys data published by individual counties as a baseline to track and compare homelessness in each jurisdiction.

The data released so far for 2017 is stunning. Numbers from Santa Clara and Alameda counties show that homeless youth have approximately doubled from just two years ago. Substantial increases are also being reported in other urban counties throughout the nation, as reported in a Pew Charitable Trust study published last month.

This may be a situation where better surveys can partly explain these surging numbers. Homeless youth are a notoriously challenging demographic to track. In some cases, experts believe the past government methods used to quantify unsheltered youth may have vastly underestimated the actual population.

In any case, the large numbers of homeless youth present a significant health challenge. To take one example, Santa Clara County is currently spending about $520 million each year on homelessness. More than half of that annual cost stems from health care. In spite of that expense, the county coroner’s office is reporting homeless deaths have increased more than 150 percent since 2011.

At the national level, a coalition of federal health agencies are current collaborating on a new data strategy specifically to analyze youth homelessness. I’m hopeful that this will provide another good data source.

If there’s an upside to all this, it’s that agencies at all level of government seem to be flagging youth homelessness as a major concern. Perhaps by coincidence, local Bay Area homeless advocates and federal officials have both set an ambitious goal to end youth homelessness by 2020.

They don’t have much time to spare.

[Photo by Michael Mandiberg via Flickr.]

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