Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago
Baylee’s family became homeless when she was two-years-old. She describes childhood as a time when she “mov[ed] around a lot” between hotels, shelters, friends’ apartments and family members’ homes.
When Baylee was 11, her mom committed suicide. Baylee entered foster care, where she stayed for two years until the court allowed her to move in with her dad. Once there, she became the target of ongoing conflict and arguments, and increasingly struggled with her mental health, attempting suicide multiple times. Feeling rejected, she left home.
Baylee first stayed in a hotel with a friend whose family was also homeless, but then moved to an emergency shelter for minors. However, she was turned away after her dad refused to sign the required paperwork. Baylee then began to exchange sex to pay for a hotel room. Not wanting this to continue and afraid of sleeping outside on the streets, she returned to the emergency shelter. They let her in for the night, and the following morning, the shelter convinced Baylee’s father to sign for her to stay.
Baylee is one of over 200 young people who were interviewed by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago for a series of research-to-impact briefs on understanding and addressing youth homelessness, known as the Voices of Youth Count (VOYC). VOYC is the first-ever national prevalence study of homeless youth, designed to capture the scope and experiences of the population, and develop actionable policy solutions and legislative recommendations based on that data. The results of the study were startling, revealing that approximately one in 10 young adults ages 18-25 and at least one in 30 youth ages 13-17 experiences homelessness each year.
VOYC is illustrative of Chapin Hall’s approach, which always includes young people, like Baylee, who are “the subjects” in the research process and in testing conclusions. Said Chapin Hall Director of Communications Marrianne McMullen, “We’re not in an ivory tower or in a lab looking down at people through a microscope. We work hand-in-hand with the people affected by the social issues that we study.”
This novel approach wasn’t always widely accepted and initially raised some eyebrows across the field. When Chapin Hall was training young people who were recently homeless to conduct research for VOYC, some in the youth homelessness space were skeptical. “But it worked beautifully,” continued McMullen. “The young people were dependable employees and gathered a lot more information than someone on the outside could have gotten. They know the population, they blend in, the kids trust them, and it leads to more effective research.”
Another hallmark of Chapin Hall’s research methods is that they’re applied in practice: “We expect our research to affect how practice is carried out and how policies are shaped at the federal, state and city level, and we want that to happen as quickly as possible,” continued McMullen.
Chapin Hall developed a host of actionable recommendations for legislators, agency administrators, nonprofits, and educators to help them address the youth homelessness crisis, based on the results of VOYC. Those recommendations include funding housing interventions, services, and prevention efforts in accordance with the full scale of youth homelessness in communities, tailoring supports for rural youth experiencing homelessness to account for more limited infrastructure, and building preventative efforts into systems where youth likely to experience homelessness are in public care: child welfare, juvenile justice, and education.
Chapin Hall emphasizes interventions in schools in particular, where students experiencing homelessness are likely to fall behind and experience a disruption in their education. Chapin Hall has developed strategies for educators and policymakers to intervene, including helping schools to identify at-risk youth before they reach a crisis, creating a single point of contact for students experiencing homelessness to better manage their care, and building partnerships to foster better record sharing so students experience minimal disruption to their education when they switch districts.
Currently, Chapin Hall is partnering with school systems and local organizations in a small number of U.S. communities – including King County– to adapt, pilot, and evaluate the “Upstream” model. Upstream is the American adaptation of the Australian Geelong Project, which led to significant reductions in the number of adolescents (ages 12-18) entering the local homelessness system and dropping out of school.
Upstream involves establishing data-driven processes to identify students at risk for homelessness or dropping out of school, and those already experiencing homelessness. The process starts with a screening survey for all students that can be supplemented with routinely collected early warning indicators like chronic absenteeism. If the school notices risks, it can then deliver a flexible case management and counseling approach, linked to a range of resources to meet the needs of the students and their families.
The youth homelessness crisis won’t be solved overnight – but Chapin Hall is helping to put us on the right track.