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

February 24, 2022
Person Testifying: Rachel White
Title: Senior Youth Policy Analyst, DC Action
Testimony Heard By: Committee on Human Services

Good morning Committee Chair Nadeau and members of the Committee on Human Services. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Council today. 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. Our collaborative advocacy initiatives bring the power of young people and all residents to raise their voices to create change. 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. 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. 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 obstruct the youth to adult homelessness trajectory is by providing youth in the District a pathway to economic freedom in the form of workforce development opportunities and programs that meet their unique needs, access to higher education and trade programs, and access to employment that results in earning a livable wage.

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. According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), many such youth find unreported employment (“under the table” work) and some resort to illegal activities to survive. 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.

Prior to the pandemic, maintaining employment for youth experiencing homelessness was already a challenge. Based on Youth Count data, 75% of parenting youth and 69% of non-parenting youth had no form of cash income. We now know that the employment prospects of all youth have gotten worse as a result of 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). There is little doubt that youth experiencing homelessness are facing additional hurdles to employment.

As we focus our discussion around creating equitable outcomes for all residents, it is also important to note that finding employment for transgender youth is even harder. In a 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, one-fourth 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.  Another quarter 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. While this treatment is unacceptable for any DC resident, it poses particular challenges for youth already experiencing the trauma of homelessness.

While we acknowledge the Youth Homeless Services (YHS) within the Department of Human Services which leads the city’s response to youth homelessness through grants to community-based organizations in the District of Columbia, there is a need for greater communication and transparency about operations. DHS has issued an RFP soliciting detailed proposals to establish a Wraparound Workforce Development Program for Transgender, Nonbinary, and Gender-Nonconforming District youth, ages 18-24 who are experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness. We in the community do not know the status of this program. What has happened to these funds? If the funds have not been awarded, we would like to discuss the option of expanding the scope to specifically meet the needs of all youth experiencing homelessness throughout the District.

A strategy highlighted in SOLID FOUNDATIONS DC report encourages DHS to develop relationships with DC-sponsored and other internship and mentorship programs to prepare transition age youth for financial independence. Youth were supposed to be paired with private sector partners to expand internship and mentorship and paid opportunities to learn on the job. Is this currently happening?

A second strategy highlighted in SOLID FOUNDATIONS DC  encouraged DHS to identify potential funding opportunities and partners to supplement job readiness and placement programs with transportation stipends, work attire, etc. Is this currently happening? The general lack of information about program implementation erodes trust in the agency and limits our ability to develop strategic plans of action.

Not only do we as advocates recognize the barriers to economic freedom for youth experiencing homelessness throughout the District, but the Mayor herself has acknowledged it as well and has articulated goals to mitigate existing barriers in the District’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act state plan. Specifically the plan states “the District will focus attention and resources on engaging opportunity youth (those 16 to 24 who are neither in-school nor employed)” by ensuring, “youth will have increased access to a coordinated education and workforce system that provides the services and support needed to prepare them for postsecondary educational success, employment and long-term career advancement.” What strategies will DHS deploy to ensure the workforce needs of youth experiencing homelessness are prioritized? 

We encourage DHS to:

  • Prioritize serving unaccompanied homeless youth in the District through implementation of Solid Foundations and by continuing to convene the ICH Youth Advisory Board to ensure policies and practices are informed by the impacted community.
  • Ensure the next iteration of Solid Foundations must focus on workforce development programs that center the unique needs of unaccompanied homeless youth and result in gainful employment.
  • Engage in strategic outreach for opportunity youth experiencing homelessness to ensure they are made aware of employment and educational services available through DHS.