Guest Post by Ramina Davidson, Director of Housing Stability & Youth Initiatives, DC Alliance of Youth Advocates (DCAYA)
The Greater Washington Community Foundation and our community of donors have funded DCAYA since 2005, when The Community Foundation served as DCAYA’s fiscal sponsor during the organization’s development. Funding has been awarded for general operating support, program support and organizational capacity building, as well as youth civic engagement, youth homelessness/housing and youth workforce-related initiatives.
Washington, DC has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation. The 2018 Youth Count DC estimated that more than 1,300 unaccompanied youth, youth separated from family, and youth heads of household were experiencing homelessness or housing instability (e.g. couch surfing or doubled up) in September 2018. Data from DC’s education agencies also revealed almost 6,000 students enrolled in school are homeless or housing unstable. How do we end youth homelessness in the District of Columbia?
Homelessness or housing instability, generally, is the denial of the right to stable, safe housing. For youth, this denial often manifests through multiple, recurring inequities in the systems that support families and youth (e.g. educational agencies, child and family services agencies) and societal inequities generally (e.g. racism, homophobia, generational poverty). In order to correct systems inequities, power over those systems must be ceded to those individuals the systems have failed to serve.
Over the last decade, DCAYA has steadily been working to shift power to the youth who are experiencing homelessness and housing instability themselves. This led to the creation of DC’s Interagency Council on Homelessness’ Youth Committee, a committee where dozens of organizations, agencies, advocates, and individuals work together to end youth homelessness—including youth who are directly affected by these issues.
Last year, through persistent advocacy, DC’s youth homelessness system saw several advancements inching us closer to shifting the balance of power. The most notable advancement was the establishment of “Through the Eyes of Youth,” a workgroup of the Youth Committee and DC’s first advisory group of youth with lived experience of homelessness or housing instability. Tasked with guiding the Youth Committee’s implementation of Solid Foundations DC, DC’s first comprehensive plan to end youth homelessness, these youth are paid advisors who share their expertise regarding failures and successes of the systems meant to serve them. These advisory group members guide all aspects of the plan, from bettering the annual homeless youth census to improving resource allocation to developing new and innovative programs.
For example, inspired by feedback from the youth advisory group, the system improved the implementation of its annual homeless youth census, Youth Count DC, to reveal a clearer picture of how young people experience homelessness. For the first time, the census captured where youth have stayed in the past, as well as where they think they may stay in the future. As a result, the total number of youth experiencing homelessness and housing instability rose by hundreds, reflecting more accurate counting that gives policymakers a better understanding of the causes of youth homelessness, and thus better ability to implement successful interventions.
In addition, system improvements included development of three new youth homelessness initiatives: Rapid Rehousing for Youth, Extended Transitional Housing (a new longer-term housing program), and a Drop-In Center that provides 24-hour care. Because DCAYA was able to secure full funding for all new projects in 2018, these new initiatives are currently being implemented and will ensure that hundreds more youth in DC have access to tailored resources than in years prior.
DC’s youth homelessness services system continues to gain momentum in its effort to end youth homelessness. Through collaborative education and advocacy, more partners join in the fight to end youth homelessness every day, and we couldn’t do this work without the support of funders like the Greater Washington Community Foundation. Driving major system change requires stable, multi-year investments. Realizing the change we seek is not a one- or even two-year endeavor. The multi-year funding support and thought partnership of the Greater Washington Community Foundation has been integral to the progress our community has made.
As we continue work to transfer power over systems that serve youth experiencing homelessness and housing instability into the hands of those youth themselves, we know we must not rest on our laurels. A seat at the table is a start, but our work is not done until youth are calling the meeting.