Of all major U.S. cities, San Francisco has the highest percentage of unsheltered homeless youths who live on their own, according to the federal homeless report released last month.
That glaring fact about a segment of the homeless population some call “invisible” comes as The City is considering new efforts to reduce the number of homeless people on the streets and target specific populations.
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Most notably, last month, top city officials endorsed for the first time safe drug-injection sites and wet housing.
Efforts focused on specific segments of the homeless population have proven to succeed. A national effort to house homeless veterans, for example, has been deemed successful.
Now, a more concentrated focus on youths is being examined by city officials, such as re-examining transitional aged youth housing procedures, the creation of a Navigation Center specifically for youths and delving into the root causes of youth homeless.
Nationwide, there were 35,686 unaccompanied homeless youths in January 2016, the report found, with 89 percent between the ages of 18 and 24. The remaining 11 percent were under 18. In San Francisco, there were 1,488 unaccompanied homeless youths counted.
San Francisco, along with Los Angeles, New York City, Las Vegas, and San Jose, “accounted for about a quarter of all unaccompanied youth in the country,” the report found, based on a point in time in January.
San Francisco has the fourth largest number of unaccompanied homeless youths, but the highest percentage of unsheltered homeless youths — 92 percent of the unaccompanied homeless youths were unsheltered — followed by 88 percent in San Jose and 86 percent in Las Vegas.
The City has set past goals for the creation of Transitional Age Youth housing, but has fallen short. And clearly, the numbers show the large gap.
Meanwhile, Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness, has reached out to nonprofit homeless youth service providers for input, including on The City’s planned Navigation Center specifically for youths. Kositsky is expected today to present a long term strategy for reducing the entire homeless population before the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee. It is unclear to what extent it will address unsheltered youths.
Among those Kositsky spoke to was Rob Gitin, who has spent the past 18 years counseling homeless youths in San Francisco through the nonprofit he co-founded, At the Crossroads.
Gitin told the San Francisco Examiner on Monday that if The City opens a new Navigation Center for youths, Gitin believes it should also include a drop-in center, where youths can come spend several hours just hanging out, maybe play a game of billiards, with the idea that there would be services onsite to engage them.
Gitin has also suggested The City not use the strict definition of homeless youths, which cuts off at age 24, since he said homeless youths on the streets tend to congregate together up to age 29.
Gitin also said through his work he has observed an increasing number of black homeless youths and advises The City to cater services to meet this demographic. Gitin said that many of the black youths are San Francisco residents but there is a “mobility” among black homeless youths as they travel around nearby cities that have a strong black community. San Francisco’s black population is about 5 percent.
A November 2015 city-funded consultant report on San Francisco’s Transitional Aged Youth housing — housing specifically for those unaccompanied young people aged 18 to 24 — made a number of recommendations, such as identifying clear pipelines into adult housing, creating or modifying the physical design of transitional age housing sites to ensure they are responsive to the needs of this population (like including private bathrooms and wi-fi) and ensuring the developments are outside of areas that may be unsafe or “potential ‘triggers.’”
At the time of the report, there were 402 transitional age youth housing units and 75 in predevelopment stages.
But finding locations without those triggers can be challenging. When Community Housing Partnership proposed opening the 25-unit transitional age youth housing development King Edward II in the Marina, community opposition delayed the opening by five years.
Gail Gilman, executive director of Community Housing Partnership, said The City has had a dearth of 100 percent supportive housing projects for homeless youths with no city-funded projects since the former round in 2009 that resulted in such projects as CHP’s King Edward II.
Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services, said the unsheltered youth percentage is a reflection of the capacity, which includes just 40 shelter beds for ages 18 to 24 at Larkin and under 70 beds between Diamond Youth Center and Huckleberry House.
“It’s just the need against capacity is limited,” Adams said Tuesday. “And many young people are reluctant to go into the larger adult shelters. They just don’t feel comfortable or safe in those much larger shelters with folks that are much older than them.”
Adams will be among those examining The City’s long-term strategy, including looking to see what The City’s plans are for great investment in TAY housing.
“My job is to ensure that young people are not lost in this conversation, that they are not invisible in the conversation about homelessness,” Adams said. “Young people are an invisible — sometimes — part of the homeless population because they are good at hiding their homelessness because they want to fit in.”
Adams said when The City puts a focus on a specific segment of the homeless population it can make a difference, such as how it has made inroads with families with children who are homeless.
“I think we need to do that same intensive approach with young people. We need to work on that,” Adams said.