Working together to study homeless youth in Tompkins County

Silhouette of Teenager Sitting in the Dark Doorway in a Sweatshirt with a Hood

photo: Alexander Novikov/Adobe Stock

Food insecurity, substance abuse and a lack of education are among the serious issues affecting homeless youth in Tompkins County, according to a survey conducted by BCTR researchers in collaboration with The Learning Web, a local youth mentoring organization, and the Tompkins County Continuum of Care, a local homeless services planning body.

This is the fifth survey of its kind in Tompkins County. The unique project, which recruits youth to seek out and interview their peers, has identified a population of homeless youth in Ithaca and the surrounding towns that previously were not counted.

“This project has generated such valuable data that local agencies have been able to use it to secure grants and create more housing options for youth,” said Jane Powers, director of ACT for Youth at the BCTR and lead author of the study. “In some cases, it has transformed the lives of the youth who have participated as research assistants.”

Researchers have conducted the study, called the Independent Learning Survey, every four years since 2003. Local organizations have used the data to bring in more than $410,000 in state and federal funding for homeless youth. The Learning Web has used this money to create a Transitional Housing Program, which has provided 154 homeless youth with housing since it began in 2008. And with impressive results: 95 percent of them have gone on to secure stable housing.

This project began in 2002 when The Learning Web approached the BCTR with a problem: They knew there was a significant population of homeless youth in Tompkins County, but they weren’t being captured in traditional measures used to assess their prevalence.

“For years, the numbers of homeless youth were vastly underestimated because we typically obtain data on the homeless population through point-in-time counts and shelter utilization statistics” Powers said. Young people approach the issue of shelter differently than adults, often preferring the uncertainties of their housing situations over the perceived loss of independence associated with residential programs. In order to learn more about this population, the study team needed the expertise of homeless youth themselves – the real “experts” on this issue.

So, the research team developed the idea to recruit and train homeless youth to serve as research assistants to collect data about their peers. The Learning Web’s Youth Outreach Program, serving homeless youth, recruited participants to be youth research assistants for the study.

portrait of Jane Powers in a black turtleneck

Jane Powers

“Young people are involved in all aspects of the process,” Powers said. “We develop the survey together, figuring out which questions to ask and how to ask them. The youth then identify the sample and administer the survey.  Once all the surveys have been collected, we review the findings with the youth to assess their accuracy. One of the most rewarding parts of this process is jointly presenting the findings to key stakeholders in the community.”

Interviewers get $10 for every survey they return, and both the interviewer and interviewee get a coupon for a meal at Shortstop Deli.

The youth have shaped the study and provided key insights the researchers would have missed, Powers said. For example, the research team added a new series of questions about food insecurity because the youth researchers said that hunger was a problem among homeless youth. They found even youth who receive SNAP, the federal food stamps program, often skip meals because they don’t have anywhere to keep groceries or cook.

Next year, the team also plans to interview students from Cornell and Ithaca College to better understand housing instability at the college level.

Powers said that over the course of the study, they are seeing younger homeless youth than when they started. “The issues are really about conflict in families,” she explained. “Kids don’t leave home in the middle of winter unless there is something really difficult going on.”

She touts the project as a perfect example of conducting translational research with community partners.

“This has been a true partnership with The Learning Web and Tompkins County,” she said. “They came to us with a community problem and we have worked together through the entire process to develop the structure of the study, conduct the research and analyze the results. It is truly what we want when we talk about translational research.”

You can read the full 2019 report at the Learning Web’s web site.