Historic federal pandemic relief could mean investing in safety net for homeless youth

Those with lived experience offer ideas to make homelessness ‘rare, brief and one-time’

By: - November 9, 2021 6:42 am

Theresa Butler, the outreach coordinator for Young Adults in Charge, speaks alongside County Commissioner Justin Jones at the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth summit.

Representatives from youth-based coalitions focused on homelessness have long used their lived experience to offer solutions to end youth homelessness, which has led to the implementation of new state laws that address systemic barriers and contributed to regional strategies.

Taisacan Hall, a member of the Southern Nevada Youth Action Board, said their contributions haven’t stopped some leaders in the community from tokenizing youth experiences or prevented youth from being spoken over and interrupted when offering input. 

“It’s not enough to just be called experts, you have to treat us like experts too,” said Hall, who is also a former client of Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth. “You won’t know how much of an impact youth can make if older people are making all of the decisions in what we can and can’t do and we’re only telling our stories.”

Nevada has been attempting to address its high rates of youth homelessness for a long time. 

With an unprecedented allotment of money provided by the American Rescue Plan Act, under which Nevada received $6.7 billion, the state could be in a position to invest in housing and homelessness in a way it hasn’t previously done.

“I’m hoping, or expecting, that youth are involved with the collaborations we’re talking about,” Hall said. “That when we’re talking about intersectionality, when we’re talking about public-private partnership, that youth are required to be there. That youth voices are required for us to move forward.”

The Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth held its fifth annual summit Nov. 4 that heard from youth, local and state policymakers, social service providers and other nonprofits to examine lessons learned from Covid and also discuss the potential of relief dollars if invested correctly. 

“There’s lots of opportunity for funding and collaboration,” said Arash Ghafoori, the executive director for NPHY. “I couldn’t agree more with our young leaders that it is time to stop talking. We have a lot of resources in our community right now, and it’s time to start doing. Whatever we invest in needs to be sustainable and live beyond this temporary infusion of money and resources.”

The 2021 homeless Southern Nevada Point in Time Count showed that of the 5,083 people experiencing homelessnes during the count, 304 were unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness.

According to The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment, there are 570 unaccompanied homeless youth, ages 18 to 24, per every 10,000 people experiencing homelessness in Nevada. 

The report also noted the state saw “715 fewer youth experiencing homelessness.” 

Social service providers and nonprofits have warned data, which was collected amid the pandemic, might not be completely representative of the overall need. 

Regardless, Ghafoori said the problem remains the same.

Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth host annual summit.

“Right now, if we tried to gather every young person experiencing homelessness in the valley, we wouldn’t have enough beds, emergency shelter beds, and programs would overflow,” he said. 

There are systemic issues that need to be addressed, but can’t until the current safety net is expanded so that “no young person shouldn’t have to turn to the streets if they don’t want to.” 

“We can’t control parenting. We can’t control health care costs. We can’t control what the minimum wage is. We can’t control the absorbently increasing costs of higher education or vocational education,” Ghafoori said. “Until we get to the point where no young person has to turn to the streets, we can’t work on that.”  

He added that once Southern Nevada does have enough resources to make youth homelessness “rare, brief and one-time,” the state could then work on “attacking these higher level issues” including economic inequality and high costs for health care and education.

“Housing is one thing but we need to think about other important factors that we need to invest in like workforce, making education free for our young people and removing barriers to health care,” Ghafoori said. “Even if we get young people housed, if they can’t go get jobs easily, if they can’t further their education easily without getting into predatory loans, then we’re really only making a marginal difference at best and really doing it at a snail’s pace when we can be a little more aggressive in how we do it.” 

‘Yes in my backyard’

Officials from the state and county highlighted some advancements and investments in helping homeless youth over the years. 

Assemblyman Howard Watts said he used youth experiences in crafting Assembly Bill 197, which updated a Nevada law that previously required youth to be experiencing homelessness more than four months before they could access health care. 

The bill was passed and signed into law during the 2021 legislative session and allows the director of a nonprofit working with the youth, a school social worker or an attorney working with the minor to submit a statement to a medical provider affirming “the minor is living separately from his or her parents or legal guardian.” 

Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones also pointed to a 2019 measure from the county to direct $12 million of revenue generated by marijuana business license fees toward homeless services, including expanding emergency shelter beds for youth.  

“We wanted to make sure the youth and the families were at the top of that list,” he said. “The nice thing about these types of funds is we can basically do whatever we want with them. Federal funds are great, but they are very difficult to deal with because they have lots of strings attached, lots of reporting problems and it’s frustrating sometimes. We were able to use these funds to fill some gaps of federal funds.”

Previous investments don’t compare to the current $6.7 billion Nevada received from the American Rescue Plan.

Of the money, the state received $2.7 billion in flexible dollars, localities got collectively $1.04 billion. There are also separate allotments for issues like housing, family assistance and education. 

Yvanna Cancela, chief of staff for Gov. Steve Sisiolak, who spoke at the summit, said when thinking about funds “we have to position our most vulnerable populations at the forefront of our discussions.”

“There is no question of the last year that youth, whether they are in foster care, unhoused or just at home in tough situations, have felt the brunt of the last year in a way we don’t have the words to totally understand,” she said. 

Cancela cited child care, housing and economic development as top priorities for the governor when spending ARP funds. 

“Our process is going to take some time,” she said. “There are 106 different allowable Treasury expenses and we’re looking at over 2,500 proposals that have come in. We have to do the work of matching proposals with allowable expenses, with the needs and prioritization 

Clark County, which was allocated $440 million, is already planning to direct $157 million of its ARP dollars toward housing and homelesness. 

Jones said housing seems like an obvious solution, but it’s about getting “out of our own way to a certain extent.”

“The other thing we have to address right now is NIMBYism,” Jones said. “The County is pushing forward on its initiatives with affordable housing and we’re trying to make sure we get that distributed throughout the community so we don’t concentrate poverty in an area or we don’t concentrate (on) affordable housing (projects). Neighbors don’t like it in their backyard so we as elected officials have to have the intestinal fortitude to say ‘yes in my backyard’ including in our own backyards.”

In an interview after the summit, Ghafoori said NPHY submitted multiple proposals to allow the nonprofit to invest in housing and expand outreach. 

“We aren’t talking about giving us more money to rent a place to house more youth,” he said. “We are talking about how nonprofits really need to be invested to build their own permanent infrastructure.”

Every year, he said nonprofits who house vulnerable clients pay landlords upwards of 30% of “programmatic funding” to house. If rents rise or funding dry up, that might mean relocating clients.   

“For us to retraumatize youth by saying, ‘we’ll we are renting this place, the grant dried up and the program’s over’ — we don’t want to do that,” he said. “So we want to build a more permanent infrastructure for NPHY that can be utilized for programming or directly for the benefit of young people by being able to rent.”

The nonprofit submitted multi-million dollar proposals for various housing projects that would fit the needs of different populations.

Ghafoori said any housing solution shouldn’t be “one size fits all.”

“You need very specific and different tailored housing solutions that work, whether it’s a marginalized subpopulation, for BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) youth, for transition age youth, whether it’s for your youth that don’t want to conform to traditional programming, we need to have something for them as well,” he added. “It’s about the diversification of the things we have and the expansion of the things we need.” 

After the closure of schools, a primary lifeline for many youth experiencing homelessness, many nonprofits had to adapt to outreach strategies. 

“When services closed down, we couldn’t get to schools easily because young people weren’t going to schools,” he said. “A lot of the areas we would do outreach it was really hard to do it and find our young people.” 

Youth ambassadors with NPHY, he added, helped them rethink their approach to connecting with vulnerable youth. 

In addition to growing online strategies inspired by those youth, NPHY is seeking investment to take their services on the road through mobile outreach vans. 

“What we want to do is get a fleet of RVs where we can retrofit into a mobile drop-in center,” Ghafoori said. “We can use these things to park at schools right after school, and we can do intake, have nurses there or tutoring. Then on the weekends we can go to other high-need areas and pull up public transportation coordinators or in the park and do outreach there. We need to figure out a way to bring services to where young people are and make it accessible.” 

During the summit, Ghafoori also noted transportation as another barrier the state and county should focus on.

Because of gaps in public transportation, many youth struggle to get to school, health care or social services leaving nonprofits like NPHY to spend program dollars to ensure clients get to where they need to be. 

Youth organizers also presented Cancela with other ideas the state should consider like creating a 24 hour hotline for youth and expanding tuition waivers to homeless youth similar to foster youth. 

In 2018, the Nevada System of Higher Education voted to waive tuition and fees for foster youth. 

Theresa Butler, an outreach coordinator with Young Adults in Charge, said it was heartbreaking the waiver was never expanded to youth experiencing homelessness. 

“We often have the opportunity to house them, but because we don’t have tuition for them we often see them dropping out or they have a crazy amount of loans because they have housing but they don’t have the services to maintain their education,” she said. 

Hall urged those attending not to lose momentum following the summit and see these ideas through. 

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.