The State Index scores each jurisdiction’s steps towards preventing and ending youth homelessness by tracking relevant metrics across the following categories: Right to Housing, Shifting Power in Housing, Maintaining Housing, Accessibility of Housing, Habitability of Housing, Autonomy, Income, Health, Education, Anti-Oppression, Priority Level, and Homelessness Services (coming soon). It also pulls in data around child welfare systems, juvenile and criminal legal systems, election laws and policies, revenue and progressive taxation, and immigration policy.
This year, we focused on transforming and updating the Index to re-center it on the experiences, needs, and policy demands of unhoused youth & young adults (YYA) as they navigate the webs of systems and laws that currently affect their lives. Because we have shifted the State Index’s focus from harm reduction to transformative change, some jurisdictions will have lower scores than years past. This is intended to encourage them. Jurisdictions should not be discouraged if they have a lower score, but instead be motivated by the opportunity to implement policies that will prevent and end youth homelessness.
The first step in creating the new State Index was to take direction from YYA themselves. We organized seven focus groups with currently and formerly unhoused YYA. Each group focused on a different identity or interaction with an oppressive system. These focus groups included:
System-impacted youth & young adults
Inclusive of personal experiences with criminal, immigration, child welfare/protective services, and foster care systems and those who are impacted by these systems via a family member (for example, an incarcerated parent).
Black and brown youth & young adults
For youth & young adults of color who identify as black and/or brown.
Undocumented youth & young adults
For youth & young adults without legal immigration status.
Trans, nonbinary, & intersex youth & young adults
Inclusive of all non-cisgender identities and expressions; includes those who are intersex and/or have differences in sex development.
Youth & young adults with disabilities
Inclusive of all disabilities, including but not limited to physical and mental disabilities.
Parenting youth & young adults
For youth & young adults who are themselves parents; inclusive of those who do not have physical and/or legal custody of their children.
Youth who experience/have experienced domestic violence/abuse
Inclusive of all forms of domestic violence, including but not limited to physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual violence/abuse; inclusive of violence/abuse committed by any/all member(s) of the household, regardless of their familial relationship to the youth/young adult.
Twenty-six YYA participated in our focus groups. Regardless of which focus group they participated in, we emphasized the importance of intersectionality and asked YYA to show up as their full, authentic selves. Each focus group met via Zoom for 90 minutes and we compensated each participant $100. Each session started with the question, “What does housing liberation look and feel like to you?” We asked open-ended questions related to the theme of each focus group and took detailed notes on what participants experienced while navigating youth homelessness systems, including barriers and supports.
As a best practice for safety & confidentiality, we did not record the Zoom calls . We instead quoted or paraphrased as exactly as possible. Aleya and Erika then followed up to confirm each participant’s consent for attribution, receive edits and approval for the paraphrased quotes, and confirm consent for use of the quotes throughout the Index website and relaunch.
After finishing all of the focus groups, we went through our notes from each focus group and created metric categories based on common themes. Accessing and maintaining safe and habitable housing was a thread that ran through all the groups, as was experiencing discrimination in housing and services. The detrimental effect of homelessness and poverty on mental health, and the additional trauma of navigating non-profit and government systems were also common themes.
We used direct/paraphrased quotes from YYA to inform our understanding of what reform and transformation could look like in each category. From there, Katie and Jeremy began the process of drafting new metrics: taking each issue raised by the YYA and converting it into policies, legal rights, and legal protections. Once the draft metrics were written, Aleya and Yuderis reviewed and gave general feedback, noting additional perspectives, ideas, and metrics to include. After the metrics were complete, a team of pro bono attorneys from Baker Donelson researched the relevant statutes, regulations, and policies across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Following the first round of research, initial findings were reviewed for accuracy by Katie and Jeremy, and then scored.
We use the phrase “youth and young adults” because it includes both minors, who have to navigate systems differently (and often different systems) than legal adults, as well as young adults, who experience ‘youth’ homelessness despite crossing arbitrary legal ages of majority. We define “young adults” as those who are older than the age of majority and younger than 30.
We are also working with the National Indigenous Women Resource Center (NIWRC) to organize focus groups with Indigenous YYA. Many of our current metrics will be relevant to Indigenous YYA who are navigating state & territorial systems. But we want to 1. create State Index metrics after taking direction from Indigenous YYA and 2. work with NIWRC to create a Tribal Index for YYA who are navigating tribal systems.
Authentic Youth Engagement
This year’s Index is the first to include the insights and guidance of directly impacted youth and young adults. Their contributions in the creation of the improved Index cannot be overstated.
Safety for me looks like the ability to defend myself. Severe mental health issues have normalized a lot of things that make me feel unsafe. Safety is the emotional and physical ability to defend against harm. Classes, services and support to help prepare me so I don’t feel weak or defenseless in certain situations.
I am scared. Current youth shelters are already homophobic. New ones being built near me are close to prisons and enclosed. They are not suitable for youth as they are used as a tactic to scare youth to go back home. To then see no protocols are put in place for LGBTQ youth. County commissioners are suggesting things that are not safe, suitable or accessible. Policies do not match what’s being done around me. Though they look good on paper, who are they truly helping? As youth are being pushed away, when all they truly need is to be supported.
There should always be somewhere for everybody to go. Money is given through lottery systems etc there should be a way for everyone to be housed. Sometimes men are left out of housing assistance while women with children are favored. We all should be able to have the housing we need. It shouldn’t be something that you HOPE to get, it should be a given. Build more shelters, more housing. I am still learning what liberation looks like for me.
Damien Moses Brinson
Hope and healing looks like the ability to be in community and space with people who are like us. This requires money, housing, stability and time. A lot of these things intersect. I feel the most healed and centered when I’m around other black trans folx.
Whatever little bit you have been able to gather can be lost through bureaucracy. We need a collective effort to get service providers to understand our daily struggles. The system builds walls around us that make it more challenging to reach those in power; they want to develop programs for us but will get nowhere if they don’t ask us what we need. We are the experts on what we need, and no book can teach that. We must sit at the table and help you pioneer what the end of homelessness will look like.
E. Jasper McEwan
Housing liberation looks like dignifying architecture. Everything is the same shade of white. Things that are supposedly marked off as repaired are not. My wife can’t get a GED because HUD housing says you can’t be a student and live in HUD housing. We are stuck in small damaged apartments that we can’t decorate and make our own. Feels like housing is built to erase us once we are gone. True liberation would focus on the mental health aspect of what makes a house a home. The rental office is open for 28 hrs a week on weekdays during work hours. If I need something I have to take a day off of work and schedule ahead in order to meet with them.