AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the City of Austin continues to carry out difficult discussions about the best ways to address homelessness, policymakers may be able to take notes from organizations in Austin who have had success on a smaller scale. LifeWorks, a nonprofit in Austin which focuses on supporting youth and young adults, believes that with the right support, it could be possible for Austin to end recurring youth homelessness by the end of 2020. This would make Austin the first city in the country to do so.

The way this potential achievement is referred to is “ending youth homelessness,” but LifeWorks CEO Susan McDowell explained how that actually works is making sure that the number of young people entering homelessness is equal to the number of young people who are being housed. McDowell calls the state they’re trying to achieve “nonrecurring youth homelessness.”

“Austin has a very good shot at being the first major urban area to reach rare, brief and nonrecurring youth homelessness,” McDowell told the city council at a work session on Tuesday.

“We have an exquisite hold on the data on youth homelessness in our community,” she explained.

LifeWorks has identified 425 youth as experiencing sheltered or unsheltered homelessness in Travis County as of September 30. That’s around 6% of the approximately 7,000 people who intersected with homelessness in the Austin area at some point in 2018. When service organizations refer to youth experiencing homelessness, Lifeworks is talking about unaccompanied minors or people under the age of 24.

McDowell explained that Austin’s 2019 Point in Time Count by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition showed a 25% decrease in youth experiencing homelessness and a 56% reduction of unsheltered youth homelessness.

Who are the young people experiencing homelessness in Austin?

Data from LifeWorks on the number of youth experiencing homelessness in Austin. Graphic from LifeWorks Power Point.

Out of the 425 youth experiencing homelessness, 31.64% have a partner or a child in their household.

LifeWorks collaborated with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago for a study and found that 76% percent of the youth experiencing homelessness in Austin had experienced the foster care system, the juvenile justice system, or both.

“So it is essential that those systems are at the table when we’re developing solutions for ending youth homelessness,” McDowell said.

She also noted that a disproportionate number of Austin’s homeless youth are LGBTQ individuals and a disproportionate number of Austin’s homeless youth are also people of color.

How Austin has targeted curbing youth homelessness

McDowell explained that in 2016, Austin effectively ended veterans’ homelessness in the city after a challenge in 2014 to create systems that would ensure veterans had support as they got back on their feet. During that time, more organizations in the city began talking about how they could end youth homelessness as well. McDowell explained that LifeWorks soon began participating in federal initiatives to help end youth homelessness.

LifeWorks and partner organizations underwent programs like a 100-day challenge, aimed at housing 50 youth over that period of time.

Austin has also received grant funding that helped the city close the gap on youth homelessness. In 2017, the city was selected as one of 10 nationwide that would serve as a Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program site for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

LifeWorks has also been awarded grants from ECHO, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and other groups that have helped them try out new strategies to learn what works and what doesn’t.

At the council work session, ECHO explained the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program funding will be rolled into a funding source that will soon be available year after year. That’s something the federal government did once the success of the LifeWorks program had been proven.

At the beginning of the summer in 2019, ECHO and LifeWorks got a team together to study the data related to youth homelessness in Austin. They worked to track the housing status of as many homeless youth as they could and then launched a “targeted assertive outreach.” The outreach means that LifeWorks is pushing to get in touch with every single young person experiencing homelessness. Staff will send an email, make three phone calls, mail a letter, attempt to physically get in touch and contact service providers for each homeless youth they have data on.

“If we’re going to say we’re ending youth homelessness, we’re going to have to really mean it,” McDowell told the council. She said that LifeWorks has been on the phone with the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness during the “targeted assertive outreach” process.

“They see it as a really unique practice, too,” she said.

“In all the work I’ve done, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Matt Mollica, the executive director of ECHO.

McDowell explained that to achieve this goal of ending homelessness, LifeWorks and its partner organizations will have to provide housing or prevention/diversion services to 448 youth, which will cost between $3.6 and $4.9 million depending on what these youth need.

“Its something that cities across the country really struggle with,” McDowell said. “You’ve got a lot of cities that are very great service providers, but building these community coalitions is a real strength of Austin.”

A timeline for how LifeWorks and partner organizations have been addressing youth homelessness in Austin. Graphic from LifeWorks PowerPoint.