Making the Youth Count

Panel of formerly homeless young people gives context to statewide study

Daniel Wallace and Samantha Bryant speaking during the My Voice Matters panel (Photo by John Anderson)

In a report released Tuesday, the Texas Network of Youth Services (TNOYS) outlined early findings from their statewide effort to count and survey homeless youth over the past year. The report was announced at the event My Voice Matters, featuring youth speakers at the Mexic-Arte Museum Tuesday afternoon.

"The main focus of the event is an opportunity for people to hear directly from youth experiencing homelessness," said TNOYS Executive Director Christine Gendron. "TNOYS works in partnership with young people to make sure they have a voice at the table when decisions are being made."

Last year, House Bill 679 mandated that the Texas Department of Housing & Com­mun­ity Affairs (TDHCA) study youth homelessness statewide. Youth Count Texas!, an effort led by TNOYS, was the result. Organ­iz­a­tions from Austin and 12 other communities including Houston, Dallas, and El Paso assembled volunteers to scour their neighborhoods for homeless young people.

As a result of these efforts, TNOYS received more than 1,000 surveys from youth, and now the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work is analyzing the data. Results are expected in early November.

"2017 will be the baseline year for measuring youth homelessness," Gendron said. "Numbers collected will be incredibly important and provide a framework to determine if we're reducing youth homelessness."

After a brief introduction from Gendron, attendees heard directly from four youth speakers about their experiences with homelessness in a panel discussion. Being homeless "is a feeling of 'Oh my God, where am I going next?'" said Samantha Bryant, one of those panel speakers. "It's a horrible feeling, it's like I can't carry all my belongings all at once. After a while you learn to take one backpack."

One finding from the TNOYS report highlighted the need to expand the definition of youth homelessness. For all of the speakers, being homeless meant more than just sleeping outside – it was couch surfing, staying in motels, and aging out of the foster care system. Bryant, 22, says that although she was never "street homeless," she spent time repeatedly running away from foster care placements and had to rely on illegal activity to support herself.

The importance of schools in finding and supporting homeless youth was also noted in the TNOYS report. Growing up without a mother or father present, Darrion Borders, now 25, learned how to navigate the school system on his own, without an address. "I'm a survivor. I know how to survive through the cloudiest day, I know how to get through the storm," he said.

According to Gendron, there are currently no funds designated for homeless youth. She hopes that results from the count and resulting policy recommendations will help spur momentum this upcoming legislative session. And panel speakers had their own recommendations for policymakers. Ideas included additional funding for existing organizations and transitional living programs, and creating more street outreach programs.

"The thing that stands out to me is mentorship," Bryant said. "If I didn't feel so alone – that it was all my fault basically, and I put myself in this situation – that would have been the best resource to have."

Daniel Wallace, 23, currently works in construction and sees both mentorship and education as ways to help lift youth out of homelessness and poverty. "Sooner or later I'd like to give somebody the opportunity I've been given – to train somebody and help them move on in their life by learning a trade, breaking the cycle really."

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