Youth homelessness is often an overlooked topic. There are public institutions helping young adults and minors in need, right? Well, sadly, that’s not always the case. We spoke with the Co-Founder of Point Source Youth, an organisation dedicated to preventing forced youth homelessness through changing systems and mentalities, from ‘cannot’ to ‘can’.
Point Source Youth is a non-profit, established in 2015 with the goal of ending youth homelessness in the USA. “There’s 3.5 million youth experiencing homelessness in any given year. And 10% of all youth are unsafely housed at some point in a given year,” points out Larry Cohen, Co-Founder & Executive Director of the organisation.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 69% of the young homeless population reports mental health problems, 33% had once been part of the foster care system, and 50% have been in the juvenile justice system, jail, or detention. Surely, this is an indicator that something within the current system is not working.
Point Source Youth seems to think so. Dedicated individuals within the organisation work for and with the next generation:
“We focus on solutions that place power and resources in the hands of youth over systems that have historically harmed them.”
What Causes Youth Homelessness?
Various circumstances occur before a young person ends up sleeping rough. There’s often not just one common reason; it’s the little factors adding up to the final forlorn result.
The most common reasons Larry has seen over the years are:
- Family conflict,
- Family rejection, oftentimes because the young person identifies as LGBTQ+,
- Being stuck in the foster care system,
- Financial stresses and growing problems of income inequality,
- Structural racism and structural issues.
“It’s both a moral failing and a huge opportunity cost of amazingly creative and inventive individuals who are denied access and rights to flourish in life. And the current system really creates barriers.”
Why We Should Talk About Youth Homelessness
Ethics aside, you might wonder: ‘Why is it so important for us to talk about youth homelessness?’
“If we don’t intervene now with the youth experiencing homelessness, they may become the future’s chronically homeless adults, not to mention the daily harm young people experience while being unstably housed,” stresses Larry. And this is just one major consequence that affects not only them but the whole society.
“There’s a huge moral argument that society is only as good as how we’re caring for the most vulnerable and the most historically marginalised,” continues Larry.
“Tremendous amounts of money are being spent on systems that are not helping. Money being spent on policing, on juvenile detention, on incarceration, on schools that are more like prisons, and then on emergency care and emergency psychiatric care.”
This all adds up to one huge cost that in the end wasn’t even much help. “It’s a problem that’s fixable; we just have to change how we approach it,” declares Larry. Our CityChanger would much rather redirect this money to the hands of the young people themselves, as they know best what they truly need: “And then we’ll have a lot more creative, youth-empowered, effective solutions.”
How does Larry’s team come into play here?
How Point Source Youth Works
The organisation focuses on young people aged 16 to 24 years old. It works the following way: Point Source Youth partners up with a local agency that the youth trust. Often, it’s LGBTQ, community, and youth centres: the agencies who serve the youth and know exactly who needs housing. Then these agencies reach out to Point Source Youth, whose interventions include:
The programme started under the Obama administration. They found out that if you subsidise a family’s first month’s rent, pay the security deposit, and give them ownership of the lease, they are able to exit homelessness.
Regarding the youth, this means an individual receives a lease and an apartment of their choosing at market rate, with rent payments for up to two years. Additional services, such as job training, and mental health support are also provided. With time, when the young person gets (better) employment, they pay more rent and can even take over the entire payment.
The recognition of someone having their own place and knowing they won’t be evicted is critical for the mentality shift, emphasises Larry.
“I think many systems need to change and to be youth-centred, to put people first, and to make sure that we’re resourcing youth so that they can flourish, versus not just getting by.”
You can find the complete handbook on rapid re-housing here.
Direct Cash Transfers
All too often families are in conflict. Economic issues make those disputes much worse. A common solution is to remove a family member versus strengthening the family. Point Source Youth approaches this topic from another angle: “We give, together with our partners, to the youth the amount of cash that covers the cost of housing for a two-year period. Instead of the money going to the landlord, it goes to the young person,” explains Larry. 30-40 young people experiencing homelessness receive $1,250 per month for up to two years. They can even make several choices about payment frequency and payment options, putting the young individual in control of the income.
Read more about this method (how, why, who) here.
Not to be confused with foster care, host homes means that the young person stays with a well-screened mentor, a family member, or a peer. As per Larry’s words: “In the state of Minnesota, we provide host homes for high school students, leveraging the community of teachers, and especially parents within schools to host youth when they can’t stay with their biological family.” The goal is to provide a safe, temporary, welcoming space, giving the young person a chance to recollect and decide their next steps.
You can find the complete handbook on host homes here.
Simply put, family strengthening is a method of working with youth and families through mediation and family and individual counselling to reconcile conflicts.
Housing With a Helping Hand
“This year, we’ll be around 16 people with a budget of over $3 million,” says Larry. So, where exactly does this non-profit get the resources needed for such commendable goals?
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. It’s a mix of sources: there’s funding from foundations, individuals, and large donors, while simultaneously offering communities technical assistance and expertise.
“It’s not easy, but the resources can be found because it’s an issue that many people care about.”
COVID-19 and Homelessness
With the spread of the pandemic, the homelessness situation got worse. Not only did the numbers of homeless people rise since it started, but the struggle resurfaced for individuals who had previously experienced homelessness as well.
Many homeless people relied on shelters, transitional living buildings, drop-in centres, etc., many of which had to close or change how they operate. Point Source Youth is no exception. Instead of directing the young person in need to a specific institution usually open within specific hours, Point Source Youth’s local partners simply transfer the young person money and provide support through virtual sessions via Instagram, Messenger, or Zoom. Point Source Youth successfully adapted to the situation – not only did the organisation modernise, but also approached the youth in an environment they’re most comfortable with: digital media.
“We are meeting youth where they are at, both physically and economically.”
How to Help End Youth Homelessness
All that being said, what’s the ideal way of eliminating the issue? We’ve got the following advice, distilled from Larry’s expertise.
The first thing would be to determine the total amount spent by government initiatives on the programmes and redirect a share of that money to the youth experiencing homelessness. Next, give them the support they ask for: access to (mental) health care, job training, education. Put in effort, show young people they are appreciated and worthy, give them the full support they need to flourish: “And that approach is very different than the current one, which just presents so many hoops that young people have to jump through.” Lastly, Larry adds, “work to increase the amount of available funds to help more young people.”
If you’re starting on the journey to help reduce the homelessness crisis, follow Larry’s advice:
- Locate the power and the resources within the community.
- Work with the youth experiencing homelessness on co-creating the solutions.
- Use an abundance mentality, don’t limit yourself to the current economic situation, system, etc., but think about all that it could be.
Ending Youth Homelessness in a Nutshell
It’s not just about providing a bed for someone who needs it. It’s equally about giving that person a chance to live in a safe space, experts to help change their perspective on life, and someone to listen to them. Someone who asks: “What do they truly need? How can we help?” Young minds are delicate enough as it is, it’s crucial to have an environment where they can focus on their development, not be preoccupied by when they will get evicted. That is how we build strong citizens and societies.
Find out more about the organisation, current youth homelessness status, and the work Point Source Youth does straight from Larry himself – from his speech at The 5th Annual PSY National Symposium (2021):
For further information on the topic, we recommend reading:
- How to Create Housing for Vulnerable Groups
- The Challenge of Creating Housing for Vulnerable Groups
- Guarantee It: The Right to Adequate Housing
Find this year’s Point Source Youth events in the CityChangers.org upcoming events calendar.