Tackling Youth Homelessness With Peer Navigators in Cleveland

Posted December 16, 2019, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

A Place 4 Me is focused on ending youth homelessness

Two years ago, A Place 4 Me set out to house 100 youth in 100 days as part of its ongo­ing efforts to improve out­comes for tran­si­tion-age youth in fos­ter care. The ini­tia­tive exceed­ed its goal and — in the process — showed how to strength­en sup­port sys­tems and ser­vices for young peo­ple in fos­ter care.

Kate Lodge is the exec­u­tive direc­tor and vice pres­i­dent of strate­gic ini­tia­tives at A Place 4 Me, which is the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Cleve­land-based part­ner in its Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive® Net­work. In this post, Lodge describes how Cleve­land had adopt­ed inno­v­a­tive prac­tices, such as the hir­ing of peer nav­i­ga­tors, to tack­le youth home­less­ness today. 

You say you are end­ing youth home­less­ness ver­sus reduc­ing it. Why?

Lodge: It is a bold state­ment, but I think the bold state­ment is what sets a strong foun­da­tion for not only our desired result but also how we envi­sion reach­ing it. We are putting the onus on our­selves to find new ways and new solu­tions to address the dif­fer­ent prob­lem areas that lead to home­less­ness. It’s real­ly a call to action to rec­og­nize that this prob­lem is unac­cept­able and to stress the point that every young per­son deserves to be sta­bly housed.

How are peer nav­i­ga­tors instru­men­tal in this work?

Lodge: We have too many young peo­ple who leave shel­ters with­out infor­ma­tion about where they are going next. After dig­ging deep­er into the data, A Place 4 Me secured grant funds to hire two peer nav­i­ga­tors to pro­vide peer-to-peer out­reach and resource sup­port to these youths. The two young folks cur­rent­ly in those roles have expe­ri­ence with both fos­ter care and home­less­ness, and their efforts to con­nect with oth­er young peo­ple in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances have proved helpful.

One of the peer nav­i­ga­tors, Stef­phon Kennedy, was in the community’s library one Fri­day night and saw a young man who he’s known for a long time. He tells him to come by and meet him on Mon­day because there’s talk of hous­ing resources for which he’d be eli­gi­ble. Because of that already estab­lished, trust­ed con­nec­tion between the two men, Stefphon’s friend did come by that Mon­day and through us and our resources, he even­tu­al­ly moved into his own apart­ment a few months later.

This is just one of many exam­ples that shows how crit­i­cal these authen­tic rela­tion­ships are for young peo­ple in this com­mu­ni­ty. There’s a lev­el of trust there that is already estab­lished in a way that is much hard­er to do with adult strangers com­ing at you with ideas for the next steps in your life.

Are there plans to expand the num­ber of peer navigators?

Our goal is to hire more peer nav­i­ga­tors to help engage youth in their tran­si­tion plan­ning and help con­nect them to ser­vices. Because try­ing to fig­ure out the sys­tem can be intim­i­dat­ing, espe­cial­ly for a young per­son, the nav­i­ga­tors can step in to cre­ate a lev­el of trust. With this increase in nav­i­ga­tors, we hope that the future home­less­ness num­bers would begin to decrease and con­tin­ue to stay low.

What oth­er approach­es have A Place 4 Me used to address the young adult home­less­ness prob­lem in Cleveland?

To bet­ter address home­less­ness, you must first under­stand the scale of the issue. Track­ing meth­ods to iden­ti­fy indi­vid­ual demo­graph­ics help us to not only see things on a more gran­u­lar lev­el but also find pat­terns that we can work toward address­ing and eliminating.

Our pri­ma­ry tool, the By Name List, iden­ti­fies every home­less youth and cap­tures a vari­ety of indi­vid­ual demo­graph­ics that helps us track young peo­ple who come straight from fos­ter care.

As of August 2019, this dash­board revealed that in Cleve­land alone there were 233 active home­less youths — up from 190 in April. This includ­ed 52 new home­less folks and 16 oth­ers return­ing to home­less­ness. The inflow num­ber of home­less youth is still far high­er than we’d like to see it. So now we’re focus­ing on what we can do in the com­mu­ni­ty to reduce that inflow num­ber. What pre­ven­tive oppor­tu­ni­ties do we have for these kids? How do we address that gap between exit­ing fos­ter care and enter­ing shelters?

So, while it’s great that we have these data avail­able to us — espe­cial­ly since our work is ground­ed in data — the work then becomes about real-life solu­tions for real-life peo­ple and not just num­bers. It’s ask­ing: What poli­cies can we imple­ment to change the tra­jec­to­ry of young peo­ple exit­ing fos­ter care so they don’t find them­selves home­less with­out a plan?

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