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Take Me Home: Helping to Stop Homelessness in W.Va.

CHARLESTON – Homelessness among school students, those transitioning from foster care and juvenile offenders re-entering society is a growing problem in West Virginia.

But on the congressional level and by folks working the problem on the ground, these children and young adults are getting a hand up.

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 1,397 people experienced homelessness in West Virginia as of January 2019. That number included 79 family households and 89 unaccompanied youth between the ages of 18 and 24.

The state Department of Education identified 10,519 homeless students for the 2018-2019 school year, an 8.3 percent increase from the 2017-2018 school year. Preliminary numbers set to be released by the Department of Education later this month for the 2019-2020 school year show no substantial changes to those numbers.

The student homeless numbers are based on the McKinney-Vento definition, which is based on the nighttime residence of students including those in various shelters, those living with other people due to financial hardships, those living in cars, tents, campers, or abandoned buildings and those living in hotels, motels or places that charge daily or weekly rates.

While the Department of Health and Human Resources provided no data on the number of young adults transitioning out of foster care, West Virginia’s number of children in the custody of the foster system grew 72 percent in 10 years, from 4,123 to 7,093. That number has come down 3.9 percent, from a high of 7,378 in April.

According to the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 43 young adults between 18 and 20 are in residential juvenile centers and another 23 young adults between 18 and 19 at in non-residential youth reporting centers.

Some will transition to the adult corrections system and others will re-enter society.

Lauren Frederick, policy development officer for the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, has seen her non-profit grow as the homeless problem in the state has increased. In 2014, the coalition had four employees, but it now has 40 employees working on direct services for the homeless.

While the coalition’s focus has traditionally been on chronic and long-term homelessness, Frederick said the work on youth homelessness has grown as the need has grown over the last couple of years.

“It was a population that we were always looking to learn more about and be able to serve adequately,” Frederick said. “I was seeing it was just getting younger and younger, the people that were entering into our system. I went to meeting after meeting after meeting about all these kids that were in foster care or aging out and there was no plan for them. So, if we have to figure something out here.”

The coalition is tracking young adults as they graduate or as they age out of the foster and juvenile justice systems. In October, they started collecting information for youth 18-24, plus people who started out in those systems but who are older now.

“A lot of what I’m hearing from the youth that I’m working with is that when someone ages out of our foster care or juvenile justice system, that they might even go back to family, and that doesn’t end up working out,” Frederick said. “Then they couch-surf for a while. Then they literally end up homeless on the street, an emergency shelter, or they end up in our adult justice system.”

The coalition is participating in a 75-day challenge to house 75 youth in 75 days. Originally a 100-day challenge, it was reduced to 75 days due to the pandemic.

West Virginia is one of five regions in the challenge, including Central Alabama, Charleston, S.C., Jacksonville, Fla., and Key West, Fla.

The coalition also created the Youth Action Board, a subcommittee under the coalition’s Continuum of Care steering committee as a subpopulation, to discuss issues related to youth homelessness and prevention. One of the ways the Youth Action Board is reaching out is through social media.

Youth Action Board member J.J. Cayton, a 20-year-old former foster child from Braxton County, created a YouTube video reaching out to fellow foster children who are aging out.

“I’ve been in your shoes,” Cayton said. “For over a quarter of my life I’ve been involved in the juvenile justice system. Whenever I aged out of foster care, I was fortunate enough to be living with a family who loved me, cared about me, and provided for me as I started developing my own future.

“I realize most of you will not be fortunate enough to find yourselves in these sorts of circumstances, but you do not have to go through this alone.”

Frederick said the greatest need for helping the coalition and other homeless advocacy groups is access to data on the front end.

While they don’t seek any data that would violate privacy or laws that protect health information, data is needed to help determine whether the youth need assistance. Once the need is determined, the coalition can use its resources to help young adults find housing, find work, learn to understand rental agreements or help enter higher education or the community college system.

“We would be able to basically identify those needs and work on preventing them instead of them ending up in the homeless services system,” Frederick said. “Each county homeless liaison is amazing at trying to get this, but why aren’t we collecting this date on the front end?”

Over the last year, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has taken an interest in the homeless youth problem. Part of that passion comes from knowing how blessed he was to come from a loving family and having a roof over his head, Manchin said.

“I had unconditional love in my life every day and I knew it,” Manchin said. “I knew that I had someone that loved me no matter how bad I was, no matter what mistakes I made, they were there for me. I started thinking about and as I grew older and older and older, I’ve watched these children that have nothing in life, that had no hope, no one that believes in them, and no one that maybe cares or loves them.”

Manchin has helped secure funding from the Department of Labor for at-risk youth finish high school and receive workforce training. He has directly spoken with U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about the homelessness issue.

Manchin has also secured millions of dollars in funding for homelessness advocacy and housing organizations, including the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness.

But it’s the COVID-19 pandemic that has Manchin even more concerned about the homelessness issue. Schools shut down in mid-March and never came back. Non-essential businesses were shut down to slow the spread of the virus. The state and nation saw record unemployment. Some businesses that closed are likely to not reopen after taking a financial hit. All of these issues can drive families and their children in homelessness.

That’s why Manchin introduced the Emergency Family Stabilization Act. The bill puts an $800 million emergency funding stream in the hands of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to put money in the hands of community-based organizations that work on the youth homelessness issue.

The goal is two-fold: to help homeless youth and young adults find housing and resources, but to also mitigate the spread of the coronavirus that can occur when homeless people congregate in groups.

“Even before COVID-19, the youth and family homelessness was at record levels, and basically it’s common sense that the economic crisis and the COVID-19 tells you it’s going to exasperate,” Manchin said. “Local agencies that currently receive (Administration for Children and Families) grants – or even if they have experience in serving children, families, and unaccompanied youth that experience homelessness – they’re going to be eligible to receive funds now, including community-based, faith-based and culturally specific organizations, which never had before.”

Funds can be used for eviction prevention, utility payments, motel stays, housing placement, emergency childcare, communication and connectivity needs, education and employment and the specific needs of unaccompanied homeless youth and young families. Funds can also be used for coronavirus needs, such as personal protective equipment, hygiene supplies, and mental health services.

The Emergency Family Stabilization Act also includes U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. Manchin is expected to introduce a bill to provide additional funding and assistance to foster families.

“Every child should have a loving, caring adult in their life,” Manchin said. “It might not be the biological parents and they might not even know who they are. They might be fostered, but they’ve got to have somebody in their life. And we’ve got to do as adults everything we can to give them that opportunity.”

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