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

March 31, 2022
Person Testifying: Rachel White
Title: Senior Youth Policy Analyst, DC Action
Testimony Heard By: Committee on Human Services


Good morning Councilmember Nadeau and members of the Committee on Human Services. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Committee 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 families and unaccompanied 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.

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 prevent youth who are homeless from entering the adult homelessness system is by providing youth in the District a pathway to economic freedom and mental stability in the form of workforce development opportunities and behavioral health supports created to meet their unique needs.

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. 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.

As we center our discussion around creating equitable outcomes, it is also important to note that 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.

Employment refocuses individuals’ time and efforts on prosocial activities, making them less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Having a job also enables individuals to contribute income to their families, which can generate more personal support, stronger positive relationships, enhanced self-esteem, and improved mental health. For these reasons, employment is often seen as a gateway to becoming and remaining a law-abiding and contributing member of a community.

$1 million dollars to fund the creation of a targeted workforce development program for youth experiencing homelessness: 

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. 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 particular needs of this population of youth.

While there are workforce development opportunities that youth experiencing homelessness may qualify for throughout the District, existing programs have limitations, and unfortunately, do not meet the specific workforce needs of youth experiencing homelessness. Existing programs either require youth to have obtained a high school diploma or equivalent (which may not be attainable for our population of young people experiencing housing insecurity). Some workforce programs have stringent age requirements, not all are trauma responsive, some do not provide incentives or stipends for participation, and no programs result in long-term guaranteed employment for youth with a livable wage.

To assess the current barriers youth are facing accessing available workforce development programs throughout the District, this winter we administered a survey to youth, ages 16-24. Barriers highlighted by youth include:

  • Challenges with transportation to and from the program or work site
  • Programs lacked childcare availability (for young parents)
  • Programs did not have adequate attire and laundry facilities
  • Programs did not provide adequate pay or stipend to meet basic needs
  • Difficulty balancing program/work commitments with school
  • Experienced discrimination or harassment
  • Inadequate mental health support to deal with any trauma response triggered during employment
  • Lack of mentors or job coaches

According to youth surveyed, an ideal workforce development program to meet their needs would include:

  • Stipends to attend workforce development programs
  • Transportation to and from programs
  • Hands-on training with less classroom time
  • Job placement after completing training
  • Mentors and career coaches
  • Access to food and clothing- particularly professional attire and a place to store them
  • Benefit packages, including health insurance
  • Wraparound services with an emphasis on mental health supports
  • Money management skill development
  • Skills to maintain a job
  • Guaranteed job placement with pay that results in a livable wage
  • Bilingual workforce development trainings
  • Assistance with applying for legal documents
  • Entrepreneurial training options with linkages to funding
  • Thorough follow up after training completion to help them get stable jobs.

We are seeking $1 million to create a specialized workforce development program to meet the stated needs of youth. We are asking that this initiative be created in partnership with youth experiencing homelessness, the Department of Employment Services, and the Metropolitan Police Department.

$558,000 to fund the creation of mobile behavioral health services for youth experiencing homelessness

A lack of accessible, youth-friendly, and culturally competent mental health services is a major barrier to long-term stability for our youth. After two years of research, we propose the development of a mobile behavioral health team. Staffed by three full-time and one part-time clinicians and a full-time supervising psychiatrist (at minimum), this unit would rotate between youth homelessness services programs to provide assessments, counseling and therapy, and medication management on a weekly basis. If properly aligned with the Department of Behavioral Health Services, these behavioral health services will facilitate pathways into DBH-funded community services that would then serve our youth long term.

We have to meet our youth where they are, and in this case, that means literally bringing behavioral health clinical services to where our young people physically congregate. This investment has the potential to address youth trauma, substance abuse treatment, medication management, and long-term mental health supports, all of which will decrease the likelihood of sustained or future homelessness.

We are asking that a mobile behavioral health unit be designed in partnership with youth experiencing homelessness and DBH using funding from the Youth and Family Engagement Bureau. This investment will increase access to mental health support for the youth that need it most.