Five ways to reach homeless youth

By Mike Pergamit and Mary Cunningham :: January 17th, 2014


In a few weeks, communities around the country will conduct their annual Point-in-Time (PIT) counts of homeless individuals. These counts provide crucial data to assist communities with the development of strategies and services, but past experience indicates these counts do a poor job of estimating the number of youth experiencing homelessness.

Making sure homeless youth are counted is important for understanding how many youth are homeless; identifying resource needs for shelters, supportive services, and housing; and for measuring progress on the federal plan to end homelessness.

Counting homeless youth requires different approaches than those used for adults. Like adults, many youth frequent homeless shelters, but some avoid them, trying to fly under the radar by sleeping on a friend’s couch or by blending in at bus depots, fast food restaurants, or the mall.

Last year, the US Interagency Council on Homelessness engaged nine communities in YouthCount!, an attempt to develop innovative methods for counting homeless youth. Though the 2014 PIT counts are quickly approaching, it’s not too late to incorporate the lessons learned into this year’s game plans.  Here are five things communities can do to ensure they’re reaching homeless youth:

  1. Engage youth service providers. Agencies that serve youth are important partners. They know how to effectively communicate with the populations they serve, and frequently bring experience in counting and surveying youth. In addition, developing these community-agency partnerships creates opportunities for service integration, potentially improving service delivery to homeless youth.
  2. Engage LGBTQ partners.LGBTQ youth are overrepresented among the homeless youth population, and gaining an accurate count of this subpopulation requires partners that have a strong focus on reaching them. LGBTQ service providers can help by counting in locations where LGBTQ youth congregate, promoting the count within the LGBTQ youth community, and creating an environment where LGBTQ youth feel welcome.
  3. Engage schools as partners in outreach.As the places where many youth spend the bulk of their days, schools can be important partners in the count. There, young people can learn about the count and pass along that information to homeless youth they know who may not be attending school. Communities should consider engaging the schools to help raise awareness about the count and encourage students to participate.
  4. Involve youth in identifying areas for counting and for outreach. Current or formerly homeless youth can be helpful in identifying “hot spots,” areas where homeless youth are known to congregate. They can also serve as ambassadors, and provide entrée to these areas and help engage homeless youth in the count.
  5. Use social media for raising awareness and outreach. Data from several studies indicate that even youth living on the street are using social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Tapping into these channels can help spread the word to bring forth homeless youth who are not found in the typical places.


  1. LGBTQ Homeless Youth Undercount? | Child Welfare Watch  ::  11:36 am on February 5th, 2014:

    [...] Mary Cunningham, a senior research associate of the Urban Institute, estimates LGBTQ young people could make up as much as 40 percent of all homeless teens and young adults. That estimate is reinforced by a study released last November  by the New York City Coalition on the Continuum of Care. Darrick Hamilton of The New School and Lance Freeman of Columbia guided a team of researchers surveying young people at New York City drop-in centers during the city’s annual homeless street count. They found that 34 percent were lesbian, gay or bisexual and another 6 percent were transgendered. All but 10 percent of the young people identified and surveyed were black or Latino. Two thirds had run away from home before age 18, and one-third said physical, mental or sexual abuse was one reason for their homelessness. [...]