Counting the uncounted

GSU researchers conduct homeless youth count in hopes of increasing services for at-risk population

On a recent Friday night, Beverly Brown stood on a Peachtree Street sidewalk, just outside the Georgia Pacific Center, with a clipboard in her hand. For 30 minutes, she asked a twenty-something man a series of personal questions about his upbringing, aspirations, drug use, and sexual history.

The young adult, who identified himself as homeless, agreed to answer the questions in exchange for a $10 gift card, a granola bar, and a nylon bag filled with toothpaste, hand sanitizer, and condoms. These interactions, which have taken place dozens of times throughout the city this summer, is part of an ongoing Georgia State University study counting the number of homeless kids and young adults in Atlanta. Researchers say the segment has never properly been counted before.

"The majority of homeless youth are pretty upbeat," says Brown, a full-time Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contractor, who outside of her work is an undergraduate sociology student volunteering in the count. "They don't have a woe-is-me attitude. Some have a college education, some have goals, and they're used to working. ... They're not all on drugs, as is the perception for the homeless."

Once a year, officials conduct what's known as a Point-in-Time count to try to measure the number of homeless people staying in shelters and living on the streets. The annual effort is required to receive federal funding for homelessness services, which is partly allocated by the size of the homeless population. But local service providers believe the count underreports the number of unaccompanied homeless youth in Atlanta.

"There's just not enough information," GSU sociology professor Erin Ruel says. "Because we don't know, we can talk about what a big problem this is, but we don't have to do anything about it because we don't have enough of the knowledge we need in terms of services."

How big is the discrepancy? In 2014, Georgia officials documented about 1,000 unaccompanied youth between the ages of 14 and 25 throughout the entire state. According to GSU sociology professor Eric Wright, the architect of the homeless youth count, the number could be as high as 2,500 homeless youth in Atlanta alone, based on estimates received from service providers.

"Counting youth homelessness has always been an incredible challenge," Atlanta Deputy Chief Operating Officer Kristin Wilson says. "Point-in-Time counts and registries don't seem to end up with a good way of reflecting the youth population."

Because officials have long underestimated the problem, insufficient resources are available to help the city's homeless youth population. In addition, Wright says, overly restrictive state regulations, especially policies on reporting unaccompanied minors to Division of Family and Children Services, an effective pipeline to a foster home, limit the ability for homeless shelters to provide shelter space for at-risk youth.

"Service providers are nervous of the law coming down on them," Wright says. "It's created the problem of how to best deal with a kid who's 16 and on the street. When you add in the Bible Belt, kids who are sexually experimenting, or kids with patterns of sexual abuse in families, it's a very complicated, interrelated set of problems."

Local homeless advocate Marshall Rancifer says only about 150 beds in Atlanta are available for the city's homeless youth at shelters. According to Rick Westbrook, executive director of LGBTQ shelter Lost-N-Found, only about a dozen beds are available in Atlanta for the more than 750 homeless kids who either identify as LGBTQ or have a gender-fluid identity.

"The Point-in-Time count is supposed to capture that data for the federal government that determines how much money each state will get," Rancifer says. "You can't count Atlanta's homeless population in a day. ... This count needs to happen so better services can be provided and better policies can be practiced."

In response, Wright has brought together several-dozen students and outreach workers to conduct anonymous interviews with as many young adults who lack a "permanent stable residence" — a broader definition than homelessness, which also includes couch surfers and transient kids passing through the city.

In recent weeks, student surveyors have covered as much of the city as possible with service providers. In different shifts spanning all hours, the researchers have walked through Little Five Points, roamed past Midtown clubs, searched Downtown parking decks, and stopped at extended-stay hotels near highway stops.

Wright's team will compile a report before presenting its findings to the public later this year. Wright then hopes to pursue federal research funding, inform current shelters' programs, and educate officials on the importance of investing in "chronically underfunded" homeless youth services.

But before all that can happen, the uncounted must be counted.

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