Taisacan Hall should have been excited about moving into her first apartment in the spring.
She’s a former client of Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, and transitioning into permanent housing is a milestone for anyone who has grown up struggling with instability.
But the pandemic deprived her of that feeling.
“(Covid) made the process a lot more stressful,” said Hall, who is now a youth ambassador for the organization. “It kind of took away the celebratory factor of being permanently housed. I moved in and didn’t feel anything at all. And I still don’t feel stable because of the uncertainty of the pandemic. I feel like this accomplishment can easily be taken away from me just as quick as I got it.”
Hall along with other youth who have experienced homelessness spoke Friday at the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth annual summit to discuss how the pandemic has further disrupted the lives of vulnerable youths.
The organization will have an additional panel Nov. 20 to discuss the impact of systemic racism.
Nevada already ranked poorly for youth homelessness prior to Covid.
The U.S. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment reported that in 2019 there were 1,285 unaccompanied homeless youth.
In 2019, lawmakers estimated that nearly 17,000 students in Nevada public schools were experiencing homelessness, which includes youth who live in irregular or inadequate housing such as extended-stay motels.
“NPHY has seen firsthand how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected young people experiencing homelessness in our community by creating new problems and exacerbating already difficult circumstances,” said Arash Ghafoori, the executive director for the organization. “Covid-19 is complicating people’s housing, employment, education, health care, support networks, mental health, access to services and much more. This is impacting youth entering into homelessness and youth trying to exit homelessness.”
Youth on the panel answered questions, virtually, from elected officials and community leaders and tried to better explain just how complicated the pandemic has made it to navigate services, maintain or find housing and gain employment.
“This pandemic has taught the importance of housing security and financial security,” said Theresa Butler, a student at UNLV who lives on campus.
The last few months for Butler has had too many uncertainties, including if she would maintain housing on campus or could return to her job.
“I remember emailing my employer and him saying not to come into work and wait and see what happens,” she said referring to the first shutdown in March. “As someone who is trying to get out of survival mode, who has tried to make it happen for myself, I can’t just wait and see. I need concrete answers. It feels unfair for demanding that when the whole world doesn’t have answers. But it was a scary moment.”
Heather Grace Pummill, another UNLV student, has also struggled to get employment and stay housed all while attending school.
“You feel like you’re never going to get employed and the rent is coming due,” she said. “I’ve finally been able to get calls back but it’s been several months of not getting calls back.”
She was able to find employment, but struggles to make ends meet and pay for things like WiFi, which is necessary for online classes. She is still a straight-A student nonetheless.
The pandemic didn’t just make finding housing and employment harder for youth experiencing homelessness.
It deprived many of in-person support systems and interpersonal relationships that often sustain them as they work to overcome daily obstacles of exiting homelessness and finding stability.
“You don’t realize what you have until someone strips it away,” said Tayvon Jenkins. “I miss human contact.”
While the youth on the panel were rightfully praised for overcoming obstacles and persevering during the pandemic, Dr. Nicholas Barr, a UNLV social work professor who also spoke at the summit, said issues like finding employment and housing shouldn’t be an individual problem or responsibility.
“This is the wealthiest country on the face of the Earth and it makes no sense at all that we expect vulnerable individuals, who demonstrate how hard they’re willing to work for themselves, to just fend for themselves alone,” Barr said. “We need to make some serious systemic changes. This isn’t an individual problem. This is a systemic, social problem. We as service providers, as local officials, as state leaders, as federal leaders need to get serious and support these young people.”
As Covid cases spike locally as well as all over the country and the nation prepares for a next deadly wave — though the first wave never quite subsided — youth also have questions and suggestions for elected officials and policymakers going forward.
Butler wondered why Southern Nevada lacks enough beds for homeless youth.
“In 2019, there were only 229 beds for homeless youth that only satisfied 19 percent of the need,” she said. “Knowing this makes me upset. This is from 2019. In 2020 we’re at half capacity.”
Pummill said future federal stimulus needs to take into consideration dependent college students.
“I was a dependent student and I received nothing,” she said. “I had to try to get transferred to independent status, which is what I am now. It’s a big issue that needs to be addressed.”
Hall urged lawmakers to learn from solutions tried elsewhere.
“We know from pilot programs in other states that two things work,” Barr added. “One is using available housing stock, including vacant hotel rooms, to guarantee housing. The other is direct cash transfers. If we’re not sure how to provide services in an adequate way, provide direct cash transfers to young people experiencing homelessness.”
Other suggestions the panelists discussed include having the community examine how to remove barriers that prevent building more affordable housing and accessing social services.
They also argued there needs to be focus on urgent economic issues, such as increasing the minimum wage to $15.
“I know people who are making two minimum wage jobs full time and still don’t make enough,” Jenkins said. “You’re basically asking people to have a mental breakdown working 80 hours a week and still not have enough to provide for their family.”
Butler said the 2021 Legislative session will give state lawmakers a chance to act.
“I hope we see policies that protect and guide youth out of homeless situations, and that the programs are fully funded,” she said. “I hope change actually happens.”
But when elected officials are proposing and implementing solutions, Hall said they need to lean on the lived experience of homeless youth and not disregard their recommendations because they are young.
“One of the ways communities have failed is by not including youth in the decisions they are making on behalf of the youth,” Hall said. “You have to include us in the decision, not after the fact. Meet us where we’re at and get our input.”
Yorri Berry-Harris, the director of youth partnerships with the National Network for Youth who moderated the panel, said she hoped the people attending the virtual summit don’t just listen but respond to youths’ recommendations.
“Let’s not have these meetings once a year and then do nothing,” Pummill added.