Tompkins County has not been immune to homeless youth population rises that have also been seen nationally. But with the county’s housing stock already nearly at capacity, particularly for lower-income people, agencies have begun to focus their efforts on stemming the rising tide of homeless youths.
In recent weeks, several local organizations have been working together on a campaign to end youth homelessness throughout Ithaca and Tompkins County. Shawnee Emmett, the family support specialist for the Child Development Council, has found the growing issue of youth homelessness in Ithaca has become more of a noticeable problem, although how the youths come to be homeless can be due to a variety of factors.
“It’s called the 100-Day Challenge to End Youth Homelessness, and we understand that we aren’t going to end youth homelessness,” Emmett said. “We are working through a prevention model. There is a larger national concerted effort and we are one of four communities in the country who have been chosen to create this plan, and each community does it differently to house youth. Every city has a specific goal, and our goal is to house 50 youth by the end of the 100 days. Our goal is to connect them to community services and surround them with circles of support.”
According to data from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, based on information gathered by The Learning Web and other youth service providers in the county, there are an estimated 519 homeless youth living in Tompkins County. Eighty-six percent of those youth were abandoned, pushed out or considered “throwaways” from their homes, 71 percent have histories of neglect and abuse, 45 percent have a history of family homelessness, 44 percent have experienced alcohol and drug abuse, 44 percent have health issues, 37 percent experience mental health issues, 37 percent have a history of delinquency or are an ex-offender, and 29 percent are pregnant or are parenting. The age definition for a youth is someone who anyone from ages 16 to 24.
Currently, there are 73 young people on the waiting list for supportive housing. Other statistics show that 75 percent of youth have prior or current system involvement, with 30 percent in foster care, 18 percent in juvenile detention centers, 37 percent in prison or jail, 30 percent in a group home, and 48 percent in treatment for substance abuse of mental health issues. Meanwhile, 45 percent of these youth have an involvement in multiple systems. Only 45 percent of youth have completed their high school degree and only four percent have any college classwork completed. With funds being tight, 62 percent of youth reported they were skipping meals, with 49 percent going a whole day without eating on a weekly basis, and 16 percent of homeless youth in Tompkins County sold sex for cash, food, drugs, or a place to stay.
Those factors include youth growing into homeless by leaving a tough home situation and aging out of the foster care system. With little support, it’s much harder for youth to make it on their own. Emmett has also seen that youth remain in Tompkins County because of the community’s relatively high amount of resources for impoverished people. However, according to Liddy Bargar, coordinator of housing initiatives for the Human Services Coalition, housing in Tompkins County has predictably been a major hurdle in the way of the campaign. Emmett and Bargar are just two members of a local group of agencies working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to house homeless youth.
“We have between a 0.5 and 2 percent vacancy rate for rentals,” Bargar said. “We have a lot of agencies ready to help and support youth and offer them guidance, but we don't have anywhere that is available and appropriate for youth to be living independently. We do have Amicii House, which is a Tompkins Community Action project. They have 23 units of permanent supportive housing for youth. They opened in February , and were full within two weeks and we could fill that more two more times, probably. We just don't have the housing.”
According to Bargar, the goal was supposed to be unrealistic so that agencies would set their sights high, but she hopes that the dialogue between agencies will create long-lasting change for years to come. Other agencies working with the CDC include the Ithaca Youth Bureau, the Human Services Coalition, and Family and Children Services. As of the 50-day mark, June 21, six youth have been housed, with the biggest challenge of the campaign getting landlords to house homeless youth who aren’t associated with any of the colleges in Ithaca. With day 100 looming, Bargar is looking forward to the plans for dealing with youth homelessness that stem from participating in this challenge.
“As far as the Continuum of Care, we do have a youth committee, and people at these conversations for the youth challenge have never come to the table before and I’m hoping they will join our youth committee,” Bargar said. “One of them being Youth Employment Services— they don’t, per se, deal with homeless youth or didn’t realize they were serving homeless youth. But now, these conversations are opening their eyes. I’m just hoping we get a more streamlined system across agencies for youth experiencing homelessness.”