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The Next Louisville: For Vulnerable Young Adults, Ending Homelessness Requires Dedicated Effort

Photo by J. Tyler Franklin

A lot of American teenagers move out on their own at 18. Their first taste of independence may come within the safety of a college campus, or maybe an apartment paid for by a steady job. They’re the lucky ones.

But for young adults who experience homelessness, planning for the future can be a distant hope, punctuated by stress and uncertainty. Often it’s a continuation of an unstable home life.

That was Roan Head’s experience.

“There were a couple times I had been thrown or had to dodge beer bottles. I do remember a lot of my time spent growing up was basically being the adult and making sure my little brother had food,” Head said.

Now 22, Head spent the better part of a year couch-surfing and sleeping in shelters. A year ago, they got into housing.

In Louisville, the number of homeless young adults is lower than it used to be. Only five years ago, the city counted more than 600 homeless 18- to 24-year-olds. Last year, that figure dipped below 500, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development database administered locally by the Coalition for the Homeless. Advocates say that’s thanks to a coordinated, citywide effort that will soon be boosted by HUD funding.

That should help local organizations better address the needs of young adults. This age group isn't entitled to the protections minors receive, and they're at greater risk of becoming chronically homeless as they grow older.

Those reasons are why it’s especially important to focus on solutions unique to young adults, said Natalie Harris, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless.

“We’re really trying to catch people before they become comfortable with the idea of living in a shelter, living in government-assisted housing and turn their lives around so that they can find the opportunities that are there for them,” Harris said.

Go inside the YMCA Safe Place's Youth Development Center:

The Salvation Army shelter does have dedicated beds for young adults — six for men and two for women — but that’s the only option for unaccompanied people in that age group to stay separate from those who are older. And Harris said that's a big deal.

“You’re having your meals and your showers and all that with a large group of people, some of whom are dealing with addiction and mental health issues,” Harris said. “So the whole setting is a little daunting, to say the least.”

In the first quarter of this year, the Coalition collected data on 220 homeless young adults. They show that nearly half of these people are women, more than a third are disabled and more than half are black. More than a quarter said they had experienced domestic abuse, and several have been in the foster care system or are pregnant or parenting.

Those figures track with trends going back to 2014.

The Coalition doesn’t have much data on sexual orientation, but Harris said LGBTQ young adults are a vulnerable group as well.

“I think people think, ‘Oh, well we’re past that,’ but we still have, in a lot of communities, a lot of households where people are not accepted because they’re LGBTQ,” she said.

Isolation from family or social networks in general can have a devastating effect on people facing homelessness once they turn 18, experts say. At that age, they’re not obligated to be in the custody of family, a guardian or the state, per Kentucky law.

Young adulthood is a critical phase of life, and disruption at this time can derail a person’s life, said Bobby Watts, the Nashville-based CEO of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

“This is the time of life when you are stepping out on your own, where you are forming connections and networks that are to help propel you for the rest of your life,” he said. “And if you are cut off from most normal networks, you’re kind of set back.”

Watts said homelessness at this age can cause lasting trauma. It can also exacerbate existing trauma.

Trauma is something Roan Head still deals with.

After growing up in an abusive home and living on the streets and in shelters for a year, now Head has housing. They currently rent a shotgun house in Shelby Park with some government assistance. And Head has a job, too: working at the YMCA Safe Place Youth Development Center, a drop-in facility where homeless young adults can use the computer, store personal belongings and do laundry.

Besides daily tasks such as vacuuming and checking on clients, Head is a peer support, which means they help other young people facing homelessness.

“A lot of them are heavily traumatized. But that’s OK, because I am too so we get along pretty well,” Head said. “Like gravitates to like, I guess.”

Overcoming domestic abuse and other kinds of trauma isn’t easy, and many young adults in the same situation struggle to find stability, said Corbin Hannah, who runs the Youth Development Center.

“Roan’s just special. I see something in them. They were really, when they got here, I think struggling,” Hannah said. “But something, some light bulb went off somewhere and they worked really hard to get into housing.”

But Head’s situation isn’t necessarily typical, and Natalie Harris of the Coalition for the Homeless said her agency and others are working on solutions to help other homeless youth in Louisville.

One popular idea is a young adult-focused shelter tied to vouchers, she said. That would give young people a dedicated place to sleep while they find stability, gather a deposit and find a place to rent with the voucher.

An upcoming $3.4 million award from HUD should help bring that or other ideas specific to homeless youth and young adults to life. It’s part of a two-year program called the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program, but funding of successful initiatives could be renewed beyond that.

Watch as workers clear a large downtown homeless camp on April 1, 2019:

The idea is to create programs that can last over time and help Louisville reach “functional zero” in youth and young adult homelessness. That means having the tools to get to get the currently homeless into housing, and to accommodate anyone who becomes homeless in the future.

Yet the availability of affordable housing in Louisville is far short of the needs. A recent Housing Needs Assessment found that the city needs an additional 31,000 affordable units for its poorest residents. This is an issue that has contributed to more and more people sleeping in camps or on the streets, a trend that had been declining until recently, according to a recent report by the University of Louisville.

As the city’s Chief Resilience Officer, Eric Friedlander oversees efforts related to mitigating homelessness in Louisville. He said Louisville has done a decent job addressing the needs of homeless young adults, relative to other cities.

“But if you’re in that situation, how can you say we’ve done our best job, right?” he said.

Friedlander did not say whether he was referring to specific cities, and said he believes the HUD funding shows the agency thinks Louisville is doing a good job.

In fact, HUD data show that the number of homeless, unaccompanied 18 to 25-year-olds has fallen faster in peer cities Nashville and Indianapolis than in Louisville since 2015.

Here in Louisville, there’s hope that the HUD funding will help the city build on recent successes. Harris said a Host Homes program and a 2017 challenge to house 100 youth and young adults in 100 days produced positive results.

But she expects the figures to look worse before they look better. That’s because the YMCA Safe Place plans to use HUD funds for a dedicated outreach service that could identify more young adults experiencing homelessness. Efforts across the city could then help drive the number down.

Now, as professionals design programs and structures that aim to end youth and young adult homelessness in Louisville, young adults like Roan Head are taking their place on the front lines as well.

Head said helping others is also therapeutic. And that feeling of helping, of contributing, is something that Head is attracted to. That’s why their favorite character in their favorite game, Pokemon, is Togekiss.

“Togekiss is a flying fairy type, and specifically it is notable that it cannot live in areas where there’s a lot of hatred and pollution,” Head said. “And that whenever it does come around to meeting people, it is always of those with pure intentions.”

Not only that, Head said Togekiss is supposed to be lucky. And along with support, a little luck is something young adults facing homelessness could use.

The Next Louisville project is a collaboration between WFPL News and the Community Foundation of Louisville. For more work from the project, click here. Additional support for this piece was provided by Journalism 360, a global network of storytellers accelerating the understanding and production of immersive journalism. Its founding partners are the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Google News Initiative and the Online News Association.

Amina Elahi is LPM's City Editor. Email Amina at aelahi@lpm.org.

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