Testimony of Kimberly Perry, Executive Director before the Committee on Human Services regarding youth homelessness

March 1, 2021
Person Testifying: Kimberly Perry
Title: Executive Director, DC Action
Testimony Heard By: Before the Committee on Human Services
Type of Hearing: Performance Oversight Hearing

Good morning, Councilmember Nadeau and members of the Committee on Human Services. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Council as it reviews the Fiscal Year 2021 performance of the Department of Human Services. I am Kimberly Perry, Executive Director of DC Action.

DC Action uses research, data, and a racial equity lens to break down barriers that stand in the way of all kids reaching their full potential. Our collaborative advocacy initiatives bring the power of young people and all residents to raise their voices to create change. Through our signature coalition, the Youth Homelessness Advocacy Coalition, we organize youth with lived experience and the community organizations they rely on. We are also the home of DC KIDS COUNT, an online resource that tracks key indicators of child and youth well-being.

Chair Nadeau, thank you for yours and DHS’s support of youth homelessness providers over the past years and especially during the COVID-19 crisis. DC recently became the only state to get an “A” grade from True Colors United due to the foundation we have built for our youth homelessness system. That foundation has been more important than ever this year. As schools, libraries, DPR sites and other spots where youth seek safe harbor have shut down; youth drop in centers, shelters and housing programs have remained open and made sure that young people remained safe during the pandemic. Youth shelters have been able to control and limit COVID-19 outbreaks keeping our young people as safe as possible. And DHS has remained a good partner, equipping programs with PPE, funding increased cleaning and sanitation, adding extra staffing, and paying for overtime. But it’s been collective, hard work at every step. But programs could use support in two additional areas: behavioral health and workforce development programs for youth experiencing homelessness.

Need for Greater Social-Emotional Support During the Pandemic

While youth homelessness programs have kept young people safe, social emotional development has been put on pause. Prior to the pandemic, nearly half of all youth surveyed in Youth Count reported that they had a mental health condition. Nationally LGBTQ youth, during the pandemic, are significantly more likely than straight cisgender youth to exhibit symptoms of depression or anxiety, and less likely to have access to mental health care, and here in the District, we know that our LGBTQ youth are nearly 35 percent of our city’s non-parenting homeless youth. Pre-existing traumas compounded with the stress of the pandemic is enough cause for additional mental and behavioral health supports to be available to the shelter programs. Specifically highly trained and diverse clinicians– with expertise in trauma-informed care, have training and experience with LGBTQ youth, Black and brown youth, and non-English speaking youth.

Greater Connection to Employment

In addition, even prior to the pandemic maintaining employment for youth experiencing homelessness was a challenge. Based on Youth Count data, 75% of parenting youth and 69% of non-parenting youth had no form of cash income. And employment got harder for all youth during the pandemic. Thousands more youth received unemployment insurance during the pandemic (from April 2020 through January 2021) than in the same period a year prior – an average of 100 youth under age 22 and 277 youth ages 22-24 each month from April 2019 through January 2020, vs. 2210 youth under ages 22 and 4055 youth ages 22-24 from April 2020 through January 2021. Youth experiencing homelessness likely faced additional hurdles to employment. We are going to have to work twice as hard to get them back in the workforce as our economy picks back up.

Employment for transgender youth is even harder. While DHS is launching a program to serve our transgender young people, they need great protections. In a 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, a quarter (¼) of DC residents who are transgender and applied for or held a job in the prior year reported being fired, denied a promotion, or not being hired for a job they applied for because of their gender identity or expression during the prior year, and a survey by DC’s Office of Human Rights that same year found even higher rates of resume discrimination. Another quarter (¼) reported other forms of mistreatment based on their gender identity or expression during that year, such as being forced to use a restroom that did not match their gender identity, being told to present in the wrong gender in order to keep their job, or having a boss or coworker share private information about their transgender status with others without their permission. The District has long had legal protections against discrimination for transgender workers. The District’s Office of Human Rights has taken steps to both identify in employers screening resumes inappropriately and to help employers understand their legal obligations, and in 2020 the Supreme Court ruled that prohibitions on discrimination based on sex also cover gender identity and sexual orientation all of which are positive steps. But enforcement of nondiscrimination policies may be difficult, which is an extra hurdle for young people who already face the many challenges that come with homelessness.

Serving youth experiencing homelessness is an equity issue. According to Youth Count 34% of non-parenting homeless DC youth are LGBTQ+, with 7% being transgender women. And the vast majority of the youth in Youth Count are Black: 85% of non-parenting youth and 94% of parenting youth in 2019, with most of the remainder being Latinx (13% of non-parenting youth and 4% of parenting youth).

In addition to racism, transphobia, and homophobia, many of the youth who wind up homeless have been failed by our domestic violence prevention, education, juvenile justice, and other systems in the most profound ways. Based on Youth Count:

  • Roughly 1 out of 12 youth who are homeless without a parent or guardian reported being sex trafficked (7% of non-parenting youth and 9% of parenting youth).
  • Just under a third (⅓) of unaccompanied homeless youth reported that at some point in their life they had experience with the justice system (33% of non-parenting youth and 30% of parenting youth).
  • 2 in 5 youth who are homeless without a parent or guardian did not graduate from high school (41% of non-parenting youth and 38% of parenting youth).
  • Over one-third (⅓) of youth who are homeless without a parent or guardian (35% of non-parenting youth and 36% of parenting youth) have a past family history of family violence, and 70% of those with a past history of family or intimate partner violence report that they started having housing issues because of that violence.

Becoming homeless then compounds the challenges our young people face. By investing early and  helping our young people find stability, we are cutting off a primary contributor to chronic adult and family homelessness. According to research done by Chapin Hall “Voices of Youth Count” for every day a young person waits for housing, they are 2% more likely to re-experience homelessness later in life. And that is cumulative: 2 days of waiting means they are 4% more likely to re-experience homelessness as an adult.

Equity in Rates Among Youth Shelter Providers

Looking ahead, if we are going to continue to keep kids safe we need to ensure adequate funding for robust, high quality services at all programs and across all providers. Currently, there is significant variability in funding levels programs. We need a shared understanding of what it truly costs to provide quality services for housing and support interventions. The youth system’s mission and mandate are unique because of where young people are in their stage of cognitive and social and emotional development. This means youth programs need to be tailored and targeted to them, and the cost of doing business has to reflect these unique needs. We are not confident that the current grants and contracts reflect the real cost of doing business in the District. DHS did their best this year to provide flexible and responsive funding to meet the needs of our youth. But the sector also successfully raised millions in private funding. As individual donors and foundations pivot back to their normal giving; we need DHS to ensure organizations can continue to provide COVID-19 levels of services.

If we are going to continue to keep our young people safe, and make up for this lost year, we need to double down on our efforts and really make sure every provider and program has what they need to help youth thrive.