Testimony of Rachel White, Senior Youth Policy Analyst, before the Committee on Housing

February 29, 2024
Testimony
Person Testifying: Rachel White
Title: Senior Youth Policy Analyst, DC Action
Testimony Heard By: Committee on Housing
Type of Hearing: Oversight Hearing

Good afternoon Committee Chair White and members of the Committee on Housing. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Council today with respect to the performance of the Department of Human Services as it related to youth experiencing homelessness. 

My name is Rachel White and I am DC Action’s Senior Youth Policy Analyst. At DC Action, we use research, data, and a racial equity lens to break down barriers that stand in the way of all kids reaching their full potential.

Through our Youth Economic Justice and Housing Coalition we advocate with youth and youth-serving organizations in the District of Columbia for policies, funding, and programs that expand access to comprehensive support and services that disconnected and youth experiencing homelessness need to successfully transition into stable and productive adulthood. We are also the home of DC KIDS COUNT, an online resource that tracks key indicators of child and youth well-being. 

One of our priorities is dismantling the pipeline from youth homelessness to chronic adult homelessness, which can only be done through intentional investments into positive youth development systems throughout the District. By investing early and helping young people find stability, we are cutting off a primary contributor to chronic adult and family homelessness. For every day a young person waits for housing, they are 2% more likely to re-experience homelessness later in life. This is a cumulative statistic. Two days of waiting is equal to 4% more likely to re-experience homelessness as an adult. 

One way to disrupt the youth to adult homelessness trajectory is by providing youth in the District with a fully funded and stable youth homelessness sector that can meet the holistic needs of housing insecure youth ages 16-24. 

Late last year, not even a full quarter into the current fiscal year, youth-focused direct service organizations that receive DHS grants were emailed requests to identify midyear spending cuts. They were told grant adjustments were due to District budget constraints and yet the same month the District announced a $500 MILLION blank check for arena renovations. While DHS has recently backed off on the threat of midyear cuts, most organizations in our coalition have not received formal follow up or one-on-one communication from these emails. Notifications like this send providers into panic, undermining organizational stability and morale, instigating staff layoffs, and ultimately severing connections with already hard-to-reach clients when staff leave or when their already overtaxed workloads shift. I also want to emphasize that announcing cuts to our most vulnerable residents while opening our coffers to the wealthiest irreversibly severs trust in our government. 

In the youth homeless services space, almost all providers have been flat funded in recent years, preventing organizations from keeping up with inflation, cost of living adjustments necessary to retain staff, or scaling up to meet the intensified mental health and physical safety needs of teens and young adults coming out of the pandemic. If midyear – or FY25 – budget cuts come to fruition, it will ultimately mean reducing the number of youth served, much longer wait times to get clients into housing, more young people forced to sleep on the streets or engage in survival sex, and further loss of an essential workforce of social workers and frontline professionals. 

To make matters worse, to date, there are still a few DHS-funded youth homelessness service providers that have not received ANY grant payments for FY24 to date, which  jeopardizes their financial solvency, risks their ability to make payroll, and exacerbates sector turnover.

Fully funding the youth homelessness sector is a matter of equity. We know that Black youth and LGBTQ youth – and Black and brown transgender youth in particular – disproportionately make up the majority of youth experiencing homelessness. A solution to mitigate the impacts of youth experiencing homelessness is by creating pathways to economic freedom in the form of targeted workforce development opportunities that result in long-term employment with a livable wage. 

The intersectional traumas of identity-based discrimination and barriers to employment, coupled with the traumas of housing insecurity, make it far more difficult for this vulnerable population to pursue and sustain gainful employment. While we advocate for job opportunities, we must acknowledge that youth experiencing homelessness often face unique challenges as they try to secure adequate employment. Their connections to school are often tenuous. With limited access to basic needs like showers, hygiene products, and interview attire, it is often difficult to take the steps necessary to secure and keep a job, let alone managing the day-to-day trauma of being homeless. When they do get a job, the positions often pay minimum wage, which is not a living wage for anyone in the District of Columbia. Given the challenges youth face, it’s important for government agencies and service providers to create targeted programs and interventions that meet the unique needs of this population of youth. Councilmember White, I hope you will work with our coalition to make sure your new mentorship and CTE legislation is swiftly marked up to include a specific focus on the needs of homeless youth. 

The community and advocates have fought to establish workforce programs starting in FY22 to address the staggering unemployment rates (16% according to the National Center for Transgender Equality) of transgender and gender-nonconforming residents of the District. Since its establishment through DHS, the program has continued to be subject to cuts throughout every fiscal year. The continued threat of funding cuts challenges the ability to measure the impact of these programs and expand them. The community-based organizations administering these programs have provided substantial anecdotal evidence regarding the success of these programs. However, the District needs to sustain funding to determine their success and impact. DHS needs to provide information about the successes and challenges of this program and whether it could be expanded to meet the needs of other unhoused, unemployed youth. 

We urge the Council to ensure the youth homelessness continuum is fully funded, free of destabilizing budget cuts, and has the capacity to provide all the services that youth so desperately need to end youth homelessness. 

Thank you for your time and consideration. My full written testimony was sent to the committee prior to the hearing.  I would be happy  to answer any questions.