To end youth homelessness, groups say ‘we have no choice but to make policy changes’

Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth hosts annual youth summit

By: - November 22, 2022 6:38 am

Arash Ghafoori, CEO for the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, and Lilith Baran, the policy manger for ACLU of Nevada, speak during NPHY’s annual summit. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

Tayvon Jenkins was 12 years old when he and his family began experiencing homelessness on and off. 

The now 26-year-old Jenkins explained during the annual Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth (NPHY) summit Nov. 17 that he thought his situation was typical. 

“I thought all my friends were always hungry, like me,” he said. “I thought all my friends weren’t getting enough sleep, like me. And I thought all families went through what we were going through. At 17 years old, I woke up and realized I was in a bad situation with my family. We were homeless.” 

After visiting a drop-in center with the Nevada Partnership for Homelessness, he got connected to the nonprofit’s independent living program. For the first time in a long time, he got regular sleep, began therapy and learned the life skills needed to exit homelessness. 

Nevada has long struggled to address homelessness, in particular high numbers of youth experiencing homelessness. 

Technical Assistance Collaborative, a group contracted by NPHY to assess youth homelessness in Southern Nevada, found in 2021 that 5,125 youth ages 14 to 24 depended on emergency shelters, transitional housing, or a combination of thereof.

That’s an increase from 4,252 in 2020.

Each year the NPHY summit discusses potential policy solutions that could help end and prevent youth homelessness. 

Proposals included creating a dedicated stream of funding for homeless youth, investing in more affordable housing, expanding mental health services and eliminating barriers specific to the younger population. 

“Despite having one of the worst issues with youth homelessness in the country, the state of Nevada doesn’t have a dedicated funding stream for just this population,” said Arash Ghafoori, the CEO for NPHY. “That needs to change.” 

“Youth homelessness is its own distinct phenomenon compared to any other form of homelessness,” he said. “If we don’t intervene today, today’s homeless youth will become tomorrow’s chronically homeless adults and families.” 

Not enough resources

Each year an estimated 4.2 million young adults nationwide experience homelessness. About 700,000 are unaccompanied minors ages 14 to 17.

Melissa Jacobowitz, chief of development and strategy for NPHY, said Southern Nevada’s youth homelessness rate is among the nation’s highest.

“We’ve often had one of the highest total numbers of youth experiencing homelessness and we’ve had one of the worst rates for the percentage of those young people living unsheltered on the streets,” she said. “That means we don’t even have enough resources to temporarily get them off the streets into our shelter system.”

The assessment from Technical Assistance Collaborative found the number of homeless youth seeking services has been steadily increasing over the years. 

“There were over 5,000 young people experiencing homelessness without their parents or guardians accessing services in our homelessness services system of care in 2021 in Southern Nevada,” Jacobowitz said. “That’s a 39% increase since 2018 so we know there are a lot of young people in need of serious services in our community.” 

Like most efforts to count the homeless population, the number likely falls short,  and fails to encompass ongoing chronic housing instability, as might be reflected by the number families who are housing insecure and living in weekly motels. 

As is the case with Southern Nevada’s population of adults experiencing homelessness, a disproportionately large segment of youth experiencing homelessness – about half – are Black. 

Clark County’s population is about 13% Black. 

Nevada, like throughout the nation, has an affordable housing crisis that exacerbates the homelessness crisis. 

“We only have 13 affordable and available units for every 100 extremely low income renters in our community, which means we do not have nearly enough affordable rental units for those who need it the most,” Jacabowitz said. “Our rents have also increased exponentially above national averages, making it even harder to find housing. Without wages that increase as fast or faster than housing costs, many families in our community are just unable to afford adequate housing.”

Jacobowitz said some youth who end up at NPHY had to leave home because “their family simply can’t afford to house the whole family anymore.”

Generational poverty, domestic abuse, immigration status, LGBTQ identity, connection with the criminal justice system, or a combination of those factors also lead to youthhomelessness. 

“With adults who are homelessness, the strategy is often to get them back to the point of independence as soon as possible,” Ghafoori said. “With young people, it’s not that easy. They still have to learn to be an adult on top of dealing with the devastating consequences and reality of experiencing homelessness at such a young age.”  

‘Explicitly clarify Dillon’s rule’

If the state wants to end and prevent youth homelessness, “we have no choice but to make policy changes,” Jacobowitz said. 

That includes ”things like mandating a living wage or affordable housing in our state and our community to ensure young people don’t have to experience homelessness,” she said. 

Lilith Baran, the policy manager with the ACLU of Nevada who spoke during a breakout session during the summit, said there are several policy solutions the state and localities could explore and adopt to ensure homelessness isn’t criminalized. 

One solution she said lawmakers could implement in the upcoming state legislative session, and which could explicitly authorize municipalities to institute rent stabilization policies, is to “expressly and explicitly clarify Dillon’s rule.”

Dillon’s Rule is a governance principle that limits local powers to those expressly granted by the state, and prevents them from taking action on their own. Lawmakers throughout the state have clashed on its interpretation and who has the power to implement policies to address the housing crisis. 

Baran says it’s become a game of “hot potato.” 

“You have the governor saying municipalities have always had the right to enact neighborhood stability measures for rent control, then you have city council people and county commissioners saying, ‘I don’t think we’re allowed to. Our city attorney says we’re not allowed to.’” 

Baran also suggested dedicated funding sources that could be accumulated by taxing higher earners and industries. 

“We are putting the burden on all of these different nonprofits,” Baran said.

“It should not just be up to nonprofit groups to solve problems,” she said, adding youth homelessness is in part a result of state policy decisions requiring state policy solutions. 

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.