The New Haven Continuum of Care has yet to release figures from February’s homeless count, but one fact is already clear: a certain pocket of people seems to have been missed.
The count yielded relatively little data for New Haven’s teenaged homeless, who are not likely to be found under bridges or in soup kitchens. This elusive group, which has been termed the “couch-surfers,” often moves from place to place and avoids social service agencies as they go.
“It’s a notoriously hard group to get an account from,” said Sean Kidd, a psychology intern at the Connecticut Mental Health Center, who coordinated the count.
The Continuum, a local interagency group, undertook the enormous task of counting New Haven’s homeless population with a team of local nonprofit organizations two months ago. The project was mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which requires New Haven to count its homeless population before its agencies may receive government funding. The count happens every three years.
From remote outdoor areas to shelters and soup kitchens, crews of volunteers searched across New Haven for homeless people and recorded basic biographical information about them during a one-week period.
Katie Scrimenti, a member of the Continuum’s homeless count work group, and the director of the Mental Health Network Supportive Housing Program, said many of the people missed were probably between the ages of 10 and 18.
About 900 people completed the Continuum’s surveys, Scrimenti said, but the number of counted homeless individuals for that week was probably closer to 1,200 because many parents filled out one survey for themselves and their young children.
Scrimenti said the Continuum had hoped to collect more data for New Haven’s teenaged homeless population, but actually finding them has been a problem for all service providers.
Janis Lucky, Division Director for the Youth Continuum — an agency that supports at-risk and homeless youth — said a lot of homeless teens stay with different friends or extended relatives, a behavior she called “couch surfing.” They often do not tell the parents of their friends that they are homeless, Lucky said, and for the most part, they do not live outside.
Kidd, who has studied the homeless youth scene in Toronto and Vancouver, said homeless adolescents tend to avoid social services. When they are very young, they may fear being picked up by child protection agencies, he said. Children under the age of 17 must be reported to the Department of Child and Family Services.
Kidd said many teens also come from environments where they had problems with adults and did not benefit from structured services. This tends to make them resist authority altogether.
Lucky said she has seen kids become homeless in New Haven for different reasons.
Parents cannot always afford to keep up with rental payments. Subsidized housing programs often require parents to list all income sources for their household, Lucky said, which helps determine how much rent they pay. If a parent’s son or daughter has a job and turns 18, then the rent is likely to go up. Parents might send their kids away, Lucky said, “because they don’t want to have to pay the difference in rent.”
Another major cause of teen homelessness originates with parents’ substance abuse problems. Lucky said the majority of adolescents served by the Youth Continuum are homeless because they have parents with unresolved substance abuse issues. Parents’ mental health issues compound the problem even further, Lucky said.
But despite all the factors that get in the way, Lucky said the Youth Continuum’s peer outreach team has been successful in engaging this hard-to-reach population. She said some of the outreach workers were once homeless themselves, while others grew up in the neighborhoods where they now work.
Although it is extremely difficult to estimate the number of homeless teens in any given place, Kidd said there might be several hundred in New Haven each year. Many probably move to New York City, he said, because homeless youth tend to gravitate towards larger cities where they are less likely to stand out.
Kidd said the estimated number of street youth across all of North America is about 1 million.
He attributed the underlying reasons for teenage homelessness to a mixture of internal and external factors.
“A lot of these kids haven’t had a fair shake from growing up,” he said.
Kidd emphasized the need to look at the social problems that are causing stress in these teens’ homes, and he described homeless teens as a “symptom of social sickness.”
“So really, we need to look at ourselves for why these youth are out there,” he said.