Testimony of Rachel White, Senior Youth Policy Analyst before the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety

March 30, 2022
Person Testifying: Rachel White
Title: Senior Youth Policy Analyst, DC Action
Testimony Heard By: Judiciary and Public Safety

Good morning Committee Chair Allen and members of the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety. 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 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.

One of our priorities is mitigating adverse outcomes for youth experiencing homelessness to include criminal justice involvement which can only be done through intentional investments into positive youth development systems throughout the District. Homelessness and the criminal justice system are deeply intertwined. People experiencing homelessness are more likely to interact with the justice system because being forced to live outside can lead to citations or arrests for low-level offenses like loitering or sleeping in parks. And people currently or previously involved in the justice system, who are often disconnected from supports and face housing and job discrimination, are more likely to experience homelessness. They often face financial burdens from fines and fees imposed for these minor offenses. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people are also overrepresented among youth involved in the justice system and youth experiencing homelessness because of systemic and structural racism in housing, criminal justice, employment, and other systems.

One way to obstruct the trajectory of youth homelessness and criminal justice involvement 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.

  • Employment can make a strong contribution to recidivism-reduction efforts because it 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.
  • Studies have shown that increasing access to mental health services is directly correlated to reducing violent and property crimes which leads to lower incarceration rates.

We recommend the Committee reallocate $1.558 million in funding from Metropolitan Police Department’s budget either through the Youth and Family Division or the Youth and Family Engagement Bureau towardthe following initiatives to improve outcomes for youth experiencing homelessness throughout the District and mitigate the risk of being involved in the criminal justice system:

$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.

The mayor has allocated $22,694,000 for the creation of the Youth and Family Engagement Bureau within MPD and $14.9 million to the Youth and Family Services Division. We are asking for $1 million of these funds to create a specialized workforce development program to meet the stated needs of youth. According to the narrative in the Mayor’s budget, the Bureau will provide specialized services to youth, including students, at-risk youth, and youth offenders. It is our position that investing in a targeted workforce development initiative falls within the stated mission of the Bureau. We are asking that this initiative be created in partnership with youth experiencing homelessness, the Department of Employment Services, and the Department of Human Services.

$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 and criminal justice involvement.

We are asking that a mobile behavioral health unit be designed in partnership with youth experiencing homelessness and 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 while also mitigating the risk of criminal justice involvement.

Using the $22,694,000 in funding allocated to the Youth and Family Engagement Bureau or $14.9 million in funding allocated to the Youth and Family Services Division, we encourage the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety to: 

  • Shift, at least,  $1 million of those dollars to fund a workforce development program that meets the unique needs of youth experiencing homelessness throughout the District in partnership with Department of Employment Services and/or the Department of Human Services (DHS) as DHS has experience with developing a RFP for a workforce development program specific to youth experiencing homelessness who identify as transgener, non-binary, or gender non-conformning.
  • Shift, at least,  $558,000 toward the creation of mobile behavioral health services to reach youth experiencing homelessness where they are physically located.

Using the division to proactively address the needs of vulnerable youth would send an important signal to the community that this division is focussed on a coordinated response to improving community conditions and community relations and will prove as a benefit to MPD.