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New study identifies promising solutions for youth homelessness

Human Services

Steven Foldes

Kirsten Hall Long

Kristine Piescher

Katelyn Warburton

Sahoon Hong

Nina L. Alesci

We live in an era when nearly every problem seems intractable, and few more so than youth homelessness. Each year a staggering 700,000 young people who live apart from parents or guardians experience homelessness in the U.S. About 7,500 of them, ages 16 to 24, live in Minnesota.

The damage to these young people and their futures, and the costs of their homelessness to our society, are enormous. For youth, homelessness is often traumatic, multiplying the degradations of poverty, racism and adverse childhood experiences.

These youth often become disconnected from educational and employment opportunities at a critical point in their development. The consequence for our society is that they are far less likely to earn a living wage and often must rely on safety net programs for support.

A 2011 study of 1,451 Minnesota youth who experienced homelessness  estimated the lifetime cost to taxpayers at more than $360 million, an average of nearly $250,000 per person.

These daunting human and fiscal costs add impetus to the question of how effectively our society addresses youth homelessness.

A key component of our response is drop-in centers like YouthLink, Minneapolis’ largest drop-in center for such youth, where youth experiencing homelessness can meet their immediate needs and engage with case managers who offer a supportive relationship and access to resources such as supportive housing, employment training and GED preparation. Drop-in centers typically are funded by a complex stream of taxpayer dollars, supplemented by philanthropic and individual donors.

Similar drop-in centers with similar goals and practice models exist throughout Minnesota and the US, yet until our research, little was known about how and how well they work to meet the needs of youth and reduce the toll of homelessness on our society.

Our research team studied long-term outcomes for 1,229 youth who visited YouthLink. Funded by The Kresge Foundation, we investigated outcomes over six years in housing, education, court involvement and use of taxpayer-funded financial support programs, using Minn-LInK, an extensive dataset securely maintained at the University of Minnesota Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare.

We compared the overall impact of YouthLink’s drop-in and case management services model with outcomes for a very similar group of youth who experienced homelessness, but never visited YouthLink. This comparison set a high bar for success because the youth in the comparison group likely received  services from other providers.

The YouthLink cohort did better in several areas. They were nearly twice as likely to use permanent supportive housing and to stay much longer, and nearly twice as likely to earn a GED than their peers. YouthLink outcomes were not as good for court involvement. They also had greater odds of receiving General Assistance support and used slightly more financial support over the six years of follow-up, especially for food support.

The improved outcomes of the YouthLink cohort likely resulted largely from Hennepin County’s decision in 2011 to locate a wide range of services at YouthLink, including eligibility determination for government programs, and legal, health, employment, education and housing support services. Lowering barriers to access these services produced better outcomes.

Case managers were critical to better outcomes. We assessed how they developed relationships with youth and encouraged behaviors that allow young people to successfully navigate relationships and roles in their lives. They provided specific support to help them achieve their goals in education, housing and employment. Stronger relationships were significantly associated with desired outcomes in many areas.

Youth in both the YouthLink and comparison groups substantially decreased their reliance on government support, potentially suggesting that many had found employment. After six years, 37 percent fewer YouthLink clients relied on government programs and taxpayer costs decreased 46 percent.

Preventing homelessness is best, but when youth homelessness occurs it is solvable, and this practice model is part of the solution. The drop-in and case management model helps youth experiencing homelessness move forward in their lives. Supporting drop-in centers and fully funding case management benefits youth experiencing homelessness and successfully addresses this social problem.

Steven Foldes, Ph.D. is principal of Foldes Consulting LLC and an adjunct associate professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota. Kirsten Hall Long, Ph.D. is president of K. Long Health Economics Consulting, LLC. Kristine Piescher, Ph.D. is the director of research and evaluation at the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota. Katelyn Warburton, M.A. is a homeless programs administrator at the Office of Economic Opportunity in the Minnesota Department of Human Services. Saahoon Hong, Ph.D. is an assistant research professor at the Indiana Division of Mental Health and Addiction at Indiana University. Nina L. Alesci, Ph.D., M.P.H. is an epidemiologist and independent research consultant. A more detailed summary of study results is available at