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San Diego County Sees 39 Percent Increase In Homeless Youth

Two students walk past the front gate of Emory Elementary on Feb. 23, 2017. The school is part of the South Bay Union School District which reported 20 percent of its students were homeless in the 2015-16 school year.
Megan Wood / inewsource
Two students walk past the front gate of Emory Elementary on Feb. 23, 2017. The school is part of the South Bay Union School District which reported 20 percent of its students were homeless in the 2015-16 school year.

Count Shows 39 Percent Increase In Homeless Teens, Young Adults In San Diego County
Count Shows 39 Percent Increase In Homeless Teens, Young Adults In San Diego County GUEST: Walter Philips, CEO, San Diego Youth Services

The number of homeless teens and young adults in San Diego County increased 39 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to the point-in-time count that was conducted in January.

The number of unsheltered youth — those not living in a homeless shelter or group home — increased 54 percent between the 2016 and 2017 counts.


San Diego Youth Services CEO Walter Philips said these increases are due, in part, to improved counting methodology.

KPBS spoke with Phillips on Tuesday's Midday Edition. Here is what he had to say about the reasons for the increase:

Q: Since you work in Youth Services, did that number surprise you?

A: It did and it didn’t. I think one of the things that we have recognized over the years is that youth continue to be undercounted in terms of being identified as homeless, for a variety of reasons. One of my good colleagues years ago said, ‘Young people aren't sitting on the street corner saying count me I'm homeless’ and so identifying who is homeless is a little bit more challenging when you are talking about young people.

Q: The number of young homeless people who are specifically living unsheltered, and that is not in any kind of homeless shelter or group home, rose 54 percent. Are these kids living and sleeping on the streets?


A: These are really difficult numbers to come by, but these are young people who are very unstably housed. They may be on the streets, they may be going to motel rooms, they may be staying with friends, but the ones when they are unsheltered, we are talking about young people who do not have permanent homes and are often times living on the streets, or in cars or in unsafe situations.

Q: Why are we seeing this increase in your opinion?

A: I think there’s a couple of factors. I think one of the pieces that's important to recognize is that we are doing a better job. The Regional Task Force on the Homeless has been doing a really good job and looking at ways to better count young people and youth and so, this year we actually had a better way and methodology at looking at how do we identify these young people. So, we work really closely with the Regional Task Force on the Homeless and Youth Services and many other providers in our community worked together to come up with a strategy that would do a better job including them. We borrowed some of those strategies from an effort we did over last summer in August, where we were involved in a nationwide homeless count under Chapin Hall, which is out of the University of Chicago, which is called the Voices of Youth Count Initiative and so we took some of those learnings in terms of how do we identify young people who are homeless and took those into consideration when we did the count in January.

Q: I understand there was a change in methodology that actually showed how many kids were on the street may have led to higher numbers. But also, what are the factors that lead so many young people to end up on the streets?

A: When we look at the numbers, we see that the largest number of the increase was in the 18 to 24-year-olds. One of the huge factors in San Diego is our housing affordability crisis. Young people really are the most at risk for not being able to afford housing, and so that's another factor. I think that we're seeing increased trauma in our young people and as they turn age 18, and especially if they've not been in the system and don't have resources, are at risk for homelessness and becoming homeless as well.

Q: Now, people may see a homeless young person and immediately think, runaway. Is that the major reason kids wind up homeless?

A: You know, it's very simple to come up with one reason, but it's not that easy. I think runaway is one the reasons why young people are homeless. I think, a lot of times, young people turn 18 and they have been in unsafe situations and unstable situations until they turn 18, then they become homeless. Many have fallen out of care, whether it's the foster care system. Many who have not been in the foster care system because they didn't qualify even though they have a history of abuse, neglect and victimization.

Q: Now Walter, you used this term a couple of times, “unstably housed.” What does that include?

A: That could include a young person who has been kicked out of their home, they’ve run away from their home, they’ve been in an abusive situation, they’re living with friends. Different friends, you know one week with one friend, one week with another. We call this couchsurfing. These are youth who may be in and out of relationships and are bouncing around from housing to housing. Maybe using hotel vouchers, in and out of that situation. These are young people who really don't have what we call a safe, stable place to live.

Q: Now among the general homeless population, there are quite a few people suffering from mental illness or substance abuse problems. What about among the young homeless population?

A: That is definitely an issue. I think when we see people at San Diego Youth Services who are coming into our different programs, substance abuse is a significant factor that all youth are dealing with and there is a significant number of youth who are dealing with mental health issues. Often times those mental health issues are under identified or not identified, so we started a program in partnership with the County of San Diego through the Health and Human Services to develop a mental health program specifically designed for homeless youth. And in that program, we don't sit in an office waiting for young people to come to us because that's not where homeless youth are going to be. So we go out to wherever the homeless youth are. We work with outreach teams, we work with different homeless providers in the community in trying to identify young people who are homeless.

Q: When it comes to substance abuse, is it a chicken and egg situation? Is it the substance abuse that made the young people homeless or did they resort to that when they became homeless and in such a risky situation?

A: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think often times young people, because of whatever trauma they may have been experiencing, turn to substances and substance abuse to deal with their issues. Often times when they are on the street, they get involved in a life of many different things. They might be involved in substance abuse, they might be involved in human trafficking, they might be involved in being able to just survive through some form of forced labor. So often times when they are on the streets, they are the most vulnerable for some of the risky situations in our community.

Q: Now, the point-in-time count is used to access federal funding for homeless programs, are many of those programs focused on youth homelessness?

A: Currently, I would say the federal programs and the state programs that are identified for the homeless population, youth have not been the highest priority. We have done a really good job in this county in looking at veterans, chronic homeless adults and families. I think next in line, and I think these numbers bear it out, is that we have to give priority for youth. To date, I think the federal government is finally coming around to saying we need to put some efforts into funding youth issues and we have been working with the state on trying to identify additional resources for homeless youth.