Street youths shun services for curb life
• Agencies for homeless youths bolster assistance, but takers stay away
Despite an intensified effort to get more kids off Portland area streets, the number of homeless youths seeking publicly funded services has dropped by more than 50 percent during the past four years.
The decrease comes as the number of juveniles and young adults living on Portland streets has been increasing at least as fast as the general population, according to social service providers and street kids themselves.
The decline may be the direct result of new rules and requirements intended to move homeless youths off the streets and into education, job training and transitional housing programs.
'With some kids, the new rules aren't pushing them into the services. They are pushing them out,' said a young woman who goes by the name Bright Eyes.
Numerous homeless youths interviewed by the Portland Tribune said they shun the agencies because of their rules and requirements.
'It takes hours to fill out the forms. I don't want to mess around with that,' said Patches, 18, who said he was leaving soon for Santa Cruz, Calif.
'A lot of kids are runaways, and they don't want to give their names,' said James, 21, who said he came to town several weeks ago from California. 'What's the point of having programs if no one wants to use them?'
The changes have been pushed by the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, which approved a little more than $2.7 million for the services for the fiscal year that began July 1. The money went to three downtown agencies: Janus Youth Programs, New Avenues for Youth and Outside In.
New Avenues Director Ken Cowdery admits the reforms may be pushing some youths away. Although he believes the changes have been largely beneficial, Cowdery said, 'Some kids simply aren't ready to make the decision to leave the streets.'
The county is aware of the problem and has scheduled a Thursday hearing on the status of the programs. At that time, commissioners will consider spending almost $200,000 more on the three downtown agencies that serve homeless youths, including $40,000 for a newly created receiving center that is hoped to steer more street kids toward the services.
'We don't want any bureaucratic rule to prevent street kids from receiving services they need,' said county Chairwoman Diane Linn.
According to figures released by the county, 993 homeless youths sought services in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2000. That number fell to 747 the next year and 635 the year after that.
Only 204 youths sought services during the first six months of the fiscal year that ended June 30 this year Ñ which means that at that rate only around 400 street kids would have sought services during the last fiscal year. That compares with an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 young adults who lived on Portland streets during the past 12 months, according to homeless program officials.
Report leads to change
The reforms began in 1998 when two downtown business organizations Ñ the Association for Portland Progress and the Citizens Crime Commission ÑÊreleased a blistering report on publicly funded programs that serve homeless juveniles. The report said the programs, by not requiring the youths to go to school, get a job or move into transitional or permanent housing, allowed minors to linger on the streets for years.
Among other things, the organizations found the agencies were not tracking the homeless youths who came to them for services. This allowed kids who were not serious about leaving the streets to receive food, clothes, shelter and other services without anyone setting deadlines for them to finish school, get a job or find permanent housing.
'When we first began to look at the service agencies, we were surprised to learn it was a relief-based system,' said Ray Mathis, director of the crime commission at the time. 'They measured success by the number of youths they served with meals and shelter and so forth, not by the number they helped off the streets.'
The report, entitled 'Services to Homeless Youth in Portland,' called for focusing resources on 'youth who are working towards exiting street life.'
The county began implementing the recommendation through its annual funding contracts with the three agencies. Over the past four years, the agencies have been required to develop a shared computer database that identifies and tracks each of the homeless young people who come to them for help.
The three agencies also have agreed to focus their efforts on youths who are serious about leaving the streets. To help achieve this goal, Janus agreed to close the Greenhouse drop-in center on July 1. The center had operated for years as a place where any young person could stay without entering formal counseling, education or job-training programs.
'One of the problems was, there's always been a 'let's go hang out' kind of place,' Mathis said.
Over the past few months, the ground-floor crash pad has been remodeled into offices and a new receiving center that is intended to serve as the single 'entry point' into the system. All homeless youths wanting to receive services now are expected to go to the center, where they will be screened to ensure they are truly homeless and not merely runaways looking for an adventure.
The police also are expected to bring all minors they pick up on curfew violations to the center for evaluation.
Not everyone is convinced closing the Greenhouse drop-in center was a good idea, however. One formerly homeless youth said the Greenhouse staff helped her leave the streets and enroll in Job Corps, where she is now studying to be a nurse.
'In the past, I accessed Greenhouse for meals, showers and various activities,' said the woman, who asked not to be identified. 'If it were not for Greenhouse, I never would have actually gone into Job Corps. The positive reinforcement and encouragement that I received was what really pushed me to make a change in myself.'
Outside In Executive Director Kathy Oliver agreed that Greenhouse served a valuable purpose.
'There needs to be a place where hard-to-reach kids can be safe and feel comfortable and learn to trust the people who want to help them. Not everyone is mentally ready to go from living on the streets to enrolling in a program,' Oliver said.
Successes and challenges
Although some may question the Greenhouse closure, agency and county officials can point to numerous successes from the reforms.
The computer database used by the agencies is now providing the county with the first verifiable statistics on the youths they serve. The information includes the number of youths seen by the agencies, where they stayed before they began living on Portland streets, their histories of drug and alcohol use and where they go after leaving the agencies.
The agencies also are moving homeless youths into the system faster than before the reforms started. Four years ago, it took nearly a month to finish the screening and assessment process; now it takes around two weeks.
And slightly more than half the youths leaving the system move into transitional or permanent housing. The number returning to the streets is less than 15 percent, which is relatively small.
Mathis said the results are what the 1998 report called for.
'There were wonderful people working with these kids, but it wasn't an outcome-based system. Now it is,' he said.
A good example is John, 18, who arrived in Portland from Eugene two months ago. He was quickly screened, accepted into the Janus short-term housing program and weighed his job options before deciding to enlist in the U.S. Army.
'After I had a chance to settle in and look at where I was at, I decided I didn't want to remain homeless, and the Army offered me the best chance to learn some job skills,' he said.
These accomplishments have come at a price, however. The county has substantially increased its support of the three agencies since the report was issued Ñ from $810,346 in the 1997-98 fiscal year to $2,719,587 for the fiscal year that began July 1.
Despite the increased funding, agency administrators are apparently failing to reach a large majority of the local street kids. They believe a dwindling pool of the most motivated youths is coming to them, leaving the more alienated kids on the streets.
'The ones that are left are the hardest ones to reach Ñ the mentally ill, drug-affected ones,' Outside In's Oliver said.
New Avenues' Cowdery agreed. He thinks the agencies should fund a team of professional social workers who would work the streets 24 hours a day, reaching out to homeless youths where they live and describing the services available to them.
'We need a team who can talk their language but who are also trained to steer them in the right direction,' he said.
According to Cowdery, the county is seeking a federal grant to fund such a team. It will be discussed when the county commission meets Thursday to review the current reforms and discuss potential future changes in the service system.
'We don't want anyone falling through the cracks,' said Lora Bridges, an aide to Linn.