On any given night in the United States, approximately 40,000 unaccompanied youth under the age of 25 are literally homeless—living in shelters or the streets. Many more will experience homelessness in the form of “couch surfing.” Research indicates that as many as 1 in 10 young adults ages 18 to 25 experience housing instability in a year, with half of those experiencing literal homelessness. Between 2014 and 2018, Abt Associates conducted an evaluation of the First Place Program, a transitional living program for homeless youth in Portland, ME. The program is low barrier, and many of the enrolled youth had high needs and reported lengthy histories of homelessness. More than three-fourths of evaluation enrollees had experienced homelessness in the past (78 percent), and the average amount of time spent homeless was more than one year.
Our study included two core components: an implementation study and a qualitative youth study that examined their experiences in housing, employment and education, and characteristics such as risk behaviors, demographics and social and emotional well-being. The first brief in a series examined housing stability for youth involved with the program. The key takeaways from this first brief were:
- There was not a single path to homelessness among young people in the study, but there were shared experiences characterized by trauma, familial instability and a lack of positive social supports. Nearly all youth in the study reported histories of childhood instability. Familial instability was pervasive, and was often the cause of childhood housing instability. Many youth reported parental substance use, abuse or neglect.
Research has shown that LGBTQ youth and non-white youth are at disproportionate risk of homelessness, and youth included in the study were more likely to identify as LGBTQ or people of color compared to Maine’s population. Another factor that has been shown to be directly related to homelessness is foster care system involvement. Half of youth in the study had at least one foster care or group home placement before the age of 18, with an average of three placements per youth.
- Housing stability was not achieved solely through the provision of permanent housing, but it provided a critical foundation for stability. While critical, housing is just one of the necessary components of stability. Most youth in the study were working on securing and maintaining housing while also working on mental health issues, overcoming substance use disorders and addressing prior trauma. However, the study found that safe and stable housing is a starting point for young people to begin to address these other issues. Youth who were provided a First Place unit returned to homelessness at lower rates than youth in other living situations while receiving First Place services. The number of youth in the study was too small to make a definitive conclusion, but it is likely that having a First Place housing unit helped youth remain engaged with the services that helped them stabilize in housing.
- The First Place Program’s low-barrier-to-services model prioritized youth choice and permanent connections, which promoted continued engagement with the program among youth. Youth in the program had a range of service needs. While most had long histories of housing instability and homelessness, there was considerable variability in health care needs, basic living skills and education or employment needs. The youth-driven approach met youth where they were, allowing them to identify and prioritize their own needs. This model appears to have worked to build trust and promote engagement, leading to improved stability.
The next brief will examine the employment and income experiences of youth in the First Place program, and will be released in the spring of 2019.
US Department of Housing and Urban Development. (2018). The 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress.
Morton, M.H., Dworsky, A., & Samuels, G.M. (2017). Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America. National Estimates.