To Be Young, Gifted, and Homeless

J ohn, age 20, was assigned to SELF’s Station House during a Code Blue. He had a tough time. As a young person, it was difficult for him to hold his own with older men, many of whom had backgrounds that triggered some of his behavioral challenges from his trauma-filled life. Unfortunately, his brief stay was not a good one. His story is emblematic of the drawbacks of low barrier.

From December 2018 to March 2018, SELF, Inc. conducted an annual Winter Initiative in partnership with the Office of Homeless Services. In addition to preventing weather related deaths, the goal of the Winter Initiative is to engage and encourage homeless individuals who are currently living in the streets to come in for emergency shelter. Moreover and perhaps more importantly, these individuals have an opportunity to connect to other supportive services generally only available when having a longer bed assignment in one of our programs. Due to 12 Code Blue warnings (a total of 44 days) called by the City of Philadelphia this winter requiring around the clock services for all Winter Initiative participants, this winter SELF provided 6,470 individual connections to emergency overnight stays and two meals each stay.

The City issues Code Blue emergency warnings in response to the National Weather Service’s prediction of bitter cold with wind chill temperatures at 20 degrees Fahrenheit or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit with precipitation. The collective goal is to prevent weather related deaths among persons experiencing homelessness. And, it appears we reached the goal. This year there were no reported weather-related deaths on the streets of Philadelphia.

Following the leadership of the City, SELF uses a low barrier approach as the foundation of its emergency housing programs (shelter), including Winter Initiative. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the low barrier approach ensures immediate and easy access to shelter by eliminating income and sobriety requirements and other policies that make it difficult for individuals to enter shelter, stay in shelter, or access supportive services. The National Coalition for the Homeless recommends that any past bans or other restrictions be waived on nights when the temperature is lower than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The latter policy also suggests that providers separate those who are violent or under the influence from others. That, unfortunately, is easier said than done. Most shelters have communal living and sleeping space. Separating headstrong or behaviorally challenged participants from tho se younger is challenging given the demand and need for beds. As the number of homeless youth grows, finding appropriate shelter space in a low barrier environment is nearly a herculean task.
According to research done by Chapin Hall of the University of Chicago, in Philadelphia 70 percent of those counted during the homeless youth count in August 2016 were Black, 31 percent were LGBT and 50 percent had experiences with foster care, detention, or incarceration. The latter representing a well-documented failure of our safety net systems and a reminder of why a young teen I met recently who wanted shelter ultimately decided that she’d be better on her own rather than coming in for services. Many young people are simply fatigued by systems that are purportedly for them but continuously fail them.
In our attempt to provide refuge to more and more homeless individuals, the City’s required low barrier approach strains staff and forces lax security due to less stringent requirements for shelter. This cookie cutter approach may not get us where we want to be. This approach may put youth, the elderly, the medically fragile, and other vulnerable populations at risk.
Already a salad bowl, the growing homeless population (those affected by the opioid crisis, domestic violence, behavioral health issues, medically fragile, aging, and young people aging out of foster care included), requires us to rethink our approaches. Particularly approaches that mix vulnerable populations and those struggling to recover from addiction with populations that trend towards anti-social behaviors, violence and those who have not yet committed to sobriety, need to be reevaluated.

While we must continue to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring, we must make additional investments, financial and otherwise in approaches beyond low barrier to better support our most vulnerable homeless populations. This strategy means less safety and ultimately challenges the very success of those trying to overcome homelessness and all the social determinants that drive it.  Sadly, the reality is for a growing number of youth, being young, gifted, and homeless is becoming less of an aberration.


Mike Hinson
President & COO
SELF, Inc.
SELF, Inc.