As program director for Walker’s Point Youth & Family Center, Lori Runge knew Milwaukee’s annual point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness didn’t tally young people as effectively as it did adults and families. But it wasn’t until she attended a conference workshop on improving the way communities count homeless youth that she felt empowered to try something new.
That workshop centered on the Youth Count! Process Study supported by the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) and other federal partners to understand more clearly the needs of homeless young people living on their own. Conducted by the Urban Institute, the study gathered information from nine pilot sites across the country to offer feedback for counting youth and to foster new ideas.
“The report was a suggestion that things could be done differently for this population,” Runge says. “It told us we could use our imagination. We asked, ‘how do we do this better?’”
Runge reached out to her colleagues at Pathfinders, which runs a FYSB-funded Street Outreach Program connecting runaway and homeless street youth to stable housing and supports. Together, the two programs created “Drop After Dark,” an all-night event modeled after those held by local schools, churches, and youth groups.
Youth attending “Drop After Dark” participate in a range of fun, welcoming activities, such as fashion and talent shows, movie screenings, and meals catered by popular chain restaurants. Most participants also complete the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development point-in-time survey, the official document used to identify homeless young people.
In January 2015, all but two of the 30-plus “Drop After Dark” attendees were counted as homeless. Many of these youth were already working with Pathfinders or Walker’s Point, and can play a big role sharing their experiences with friends and family members who haven’t asked for help, says Pathfinders Program Manager Jay Botsford.
“Going forward, we’re trying to bring folks in who are not yet getting services,” he says.
Since “Drop After Dark” launched in January 2014, the official number of homeless youth in Milwaukee has more than tripled. That “more realistic” figure begins to paint a better picture of the city’s unaccompanied homeless youth, Runge says, and the resources local social service providers need to keep youth safe and housed.
“We’re hoping that in years to come it’ll be [even] more accurate,” she says.