Penn students, faculty lead local/national efforts to combat homelessness

Several Penn faculty members are leading teams of researchers and students in local and national efforts to combat homelessness among youth, families, and veterans.

On a recent chilly November night, Johanna Greeson, an assistant professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), and six of her graduate students joined workers from Valley Youth House on the streets of Philadelphia. Their mission: count homeless youth in the city.

“Adult homelessness and youth homelessness look very different,” says Greeson. “This is one of the reasons why the count is needed, so that a youth-specific policy can be developed.”

The city’s homeless youth population ranges in age from 12 to 24. The young people stay with family or couch surf with friends. They often rest in places not made for sleeping, like subways, bus stations, cars, and abandoned buildings. Some seek temporary refuge in youth shelters; others do unsafe activities in order to find a place to sleep for the night.

By the end of the evening, 112 homeless youth were counted and counseled. The Valley Youth House report of the number of young people in Philadelphia experiencing housing instability and homelessness will be released later this month. 

Nationally, the homeless population is decreasing, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. The report’s co-principal investigator, Dennis Culhane, a professor and the Dana and Andrew Stone Chair in Social Policy at SP2, says there has been a 26 percent drop in the unsheltered homeless population since 2010, when President Obama launched Opening Doors, the nation’s first comprehensive strategy to prevent and end homelessness.

The report is based on HUD’s annual Point-in-Time Count, a measure of the number of persons sleeping in sheltered and unsheltered locations in communities across the country on a single night in late January.

Between January 2010 and 2015, veteran homelessness declined 36 percent, family homelessness declined 19 percent, and chronic homelessness declined 22 percent. The report shows that certain communities are making significant positive progress, while others are struggling.

“The numbers are encouraging, and reflect continuing progress on the issue of veteran homelessness, but progress on chronic homelessness has slowed. This likely reflects the impact of the federal budget sequester,” says Culhane, who is also director of research at the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans.

A major part of HUD’s strategy to end homelessness focuses on improving data collection.

“This report shows that the positive trend is continuing, as a result of increased resources for veterans and the adoption of evidence-based practices for families and people experiencing chronic homelessness,” Culhane says.