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Homeless Youth Count

UHD students participating in 2014 Homeless Count event

Homeless Youth Count 2.0 & Survey in Houston/Harris County

A lack of accurate data on the size and the composition of the homeless youth population and no information on their service utilization and unmet needs in Houston/Harris County add challenges to policy advocacy efforts and programs planning to assist the population. To address these gaps in data, this pilot study aims to achieve two specific goals: (1) to determine the number of youth under 25 years old currently experiencing homelessness or housing instability in Houston/Harris county and (2) to examine factors that help with program planning in the community, including the composition of homeless youth (e.g., LGBT, teen parents or pregnant, minority, undocumented), perceived causes of homelessness, service utilizations, family relationship and social network, and prevalence of risk behaviors.

​Background and Significance

​Homeless youth are a vulnerable and invisible population that has been historically undercounted in federal, state, and local efforts to enumerate the homeless population (Auerswald, et al, 2013). Moreover, conflicting definitions of youth homelessness across federal agencies make it difficult to correctly identify the size of the population (Pergamit, et al., 2013). Thus, accurate data on the prevalence and the composition of the homeless youth population are significantly lacking both nationally and locally. Nationwide, the numbers of homeless youth, when cited, range widely from 46,924, based on the first-youth-inclusive count conducted in 2013 sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to 1.6 million youth, based on a 1998 estimate by the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (National Alliance to End Homelessness [NAEH], 2014; Ringwalt, et. al., 1998). Additionally, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that about 550,000 unaccompanied youth experience a homeless episode of longer than one week, with about 380,000 of those youth being minors (NAEH).

The Importance of Accurate Homeless Youth Counts​

Photo of UHD students participating in Homeless Youth CountThe accurate number of homeless youth in Houston/Harris County is unknown. In the first youth-inclusive Point-In-Time (PIT) count conducted by the Coalition for the Homelessness, 268 youth were counted as being homeless. However, the Harris County Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), a computerized data collection system for homeless persons, reported that about 3,740 unduplicated youth used homeless services in 2012 (the Coalition for the Homeless, 2013). The Covenant House Texas, the largest Harris County emergency shelter servicing youth 18-21 years old, reported assisting over 5,300 youth in 2011(Covenant House, 2011). Additionally, the National Runaway Switchboard received 1,243 calls from the Houston/Harris County area in 2011 (National Runaway Switchboard, 2011). This demonstrates the likelihood that the current PIT count is not capturing the true number of youth experiencing homelessness here in Houston/Harris County.

Accurate data on the homeless youth population in Houston/Harris County are crucial for multiple reasons. First, data are critical to assess the scope of the problem and to inform policy and the allocation of resources. In fact, in 2009, about $4.175 billion nationwide was spent on homelessness assistance, mostly coming from HUD ($3.391 billion; 81% of total spending) , but less than 1% ($195 million) out of $4.175 billion was targeted to unaccompanied homeless youth (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2009). Second, understanding the composition of the homeless youth population is critical to inform both prevention and intervention efforts. For example, health promotion and disease prevention strategies differ across subgroups including foster care, incarcerated, pregnant, undocumented, and LGBT youth. While we know some youth have a greater risk for homelessness such as LGBT (Durso et. al., 2012), little is known about their experiences of homelessness, subgroup risk behaviors, and their specific health and social service needs. Accurate information on the composition and needs of homeless youth will allow homeless youth service providers and researchers in the community to develop targeted resources and prevention strategies. Third, data are critical in measuring changes in population size and composition over time to provide baseline data for assessing the effectiveness of programs and services. Fourth, by establishing the effectiveness of these innovative methods to count homeless youth, our community can serve as an exemplary model for other large urban areas across the nation. Nationwide, only about 50,000 youth per year are served by targeted homeless youth programs (NAEH, 2014). Without better, more accurate data, it is challenging to adequately address the needs of homeless youth and secure resources to meet their needs.

Point-In-Time Count Methods and Challenges Related to Counting Homeless Youth

Since 2005, HUD required communities receiving federal funds for local homeless service planning to conduct a Point-In-Time (PIT) count to determine the number of homeless people in the communities. Continuum of Care (CoCs), a group of public agencies, service providers, and advocates that develop and implement plans to address homelessness within the community, are in charge of the count. In general, the HUD PIT counts are conducted on one day during the last ten days of January and include both a sheltered count (i.e., counting the number of homeless people staying in shelters on the night of the count) and an unsheltered count, also known as a “street count” (i.e., counting homeless people living on the street, in parks, in cars, or in “unconventional” housing). Two methods are generally used to obtain the unsheltered count: (1) directly counting homeless people located in public places, such as streets, parks, public buildings, part of transportation system, and vehicles or (2) screening those using selected non-shelter services, such as soup kitchens, food pantries, drop-in centers, or other social service agencies.

Over time, there has been increasing emphasis on the importance of addressing the needs of homeless youth as a distinct population. In 2013 HUD required that CoCs report the number of homeless youth age 18-24 encountered in the PIT count. Previously, communities were only required to report whether the homeless person was an unaccompanied minor (under age 18), an adult age 18-60, or an elderly individual over age 60. To support this effort, the United States Interagency Council in Homelessness (USICH) launched Youth Count!, a pilot study that was conducted in nine U.S. cities. Although much attention was given to this first youth-inclusive count in 2013, methods commonly used for homeless adult censuses significantly undercounted the homeless youth population. Several concerns were addressed from the Youth Count! pilot;

  1. Conflicting federal definitions of unaccompanied homeless youth: unlike the adult homeless population, federal governments that administer programs for homeless youth, including HUD, Department of Education (ED), and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), use different definitions of what constitutes homelessness. The PIT count uses the HUD definition of homelessness (i.e., those who live on the street or in a place not meant for human habitation) and does not capture youth who are unstably housed, including youth staying intermittently with others, sleeping in hotels, and staying in Residential Treatment Centers (RCT).Thus, expanding the definition of homelessness can incentivize providers to support the count efforts (Auerswald, et al., 2013).
  2. Heterogeneity of homeless youth (e.g., minority status, teen parents, LGBT youth, undocumented youth): Different subgroups require different outreach strategies to count them. Thus, concerted collaborative efforts among providers who serve different subgroups are needed.
  3. The “hidden” nature of the population: Many youth left home or were rejected by their family due to abuse, unsafe environments, sexual orientation, or pregnancy. Once homeless, a large percentage of youth are forced to engage in illicit activities, such as drug use, prostitution, or crime for their survival (Ferguson, Bender et al. 2011)Therefore, youth have a general distrust of police and social service involvement due to fear of being punished or returned home. In addition, because of the stigma and shame related to being homeless, youth try to blend in with others in their age group, making them further difficult to locate and identify (Santa Maria, Ha, Bezette-Flores, Narendorf, 2014; Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services, 2013).​


Counting Challenges Specific to Houston/Harris County

In addition to the population-level issues identified from the previous count, there are several challenges that are specific to Houston/Harris County that need to be considered in the counting methodology.

  1. Harris County is the 3rd largest county in the U.S., with about 1,778 sq miles and a population of 4 million. Thus, it requires a substantial amount of resources to cover the geographical area for the one-night count.
  2. Shelters and other resources for homeless youth are limited in Harris County and throughout the state of Texas. Thus, youth who do not have stable housing are often disconnected from available services, complicating efforts to reach and accurately count homeless youth.
  3. There is a lack of prior data on the distribution of homeless youth in Houston/Harris County, which makes it difficult to focus our efforts on certain areas.
  4. There is a lack of knowledge on the homeless youth population in the area, such as where youth congregate and what time of the day, social and health care services they used, and how/whether they socialize with homeless peers or homeless adults.
This study considers these challenges addressed in the population and the local-level data collection, and proposes a promising methodology for Houston/Harris County.

Preliminary Work (Phase 1 Study: Focus Group)

Because there is a lack of knowledge of survival strategies, socialization patterns, and locations that are visited by homeless or unstably housed youth, an exploratory study was needed to inform the planning and implementation of an effective homeless youth count and survey. A total of 13 focus groups (n=64) were conducted over a five month period with homeless youth 14-24 years old. The sample included sheltered and unsheltered homeless youth from diverse subgroups (pregnant and parenting youths, LGBT, and minors). Sheltered youth were recruited from Covenant House and Kinder Emergency Shelter, and unsheltered youth were recruited from Grace Place, Open Gate, Haven Center, and Hay Center. Focus groups were conducted by the project’s PI (Dr. Yoonsook Ha) and Co-PI (Dr. Diane Santa Maria) and elicited information on how youth define homelessness, locations frequently visited by youth, when youth visit these locations, use of and experience with health and social services including shelters, use of technology, social network and socialization patterns, and risk behaviors. Preliminary findings include:

  1. Homeless youth do not define themselves as homeless once they have a place to stay, including homeless shelters.
  2. Homeless youth spend a significant amount of time moving around family and friends’ homes (couch-surfing) before they stay on the streets or seek shelter services. They move from place to place frequently.
  3. Homeless youth try to be self-reliant and participate in risky behaviors for their survival (e.g., trading sex, selling drug, crime) to meet their immediate needs (e.g., shelter, food). Thus seeking help from homeless service providers is often their last resort.
  4. Homeless youth separate themselves from each other and homeless adults because of shame of being homeless and distrust against adults and other homeless persons.
  5. Homeless youth acknowledge that being on the street during nighttime is not safe and thus try to hide before dusk.

Research Design and Method

Definition of the Population

Different definitions have been used among HUD, ED, and HHS that administer homeless assistance programs for youth who are homeless or unstably housed. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) includes only the “literally” homeless youth (i.e., youth who live somewhere unsuitable for human habitations), while the Department of Education include not only “literally homeless” youth but also those who are school-aged individuals who do not have a fixed, regular, or adequate nighttime residence, which includes those who doubled-up or stay temporarily with family, friends, or acquaintances. The Department of Health and Human Services further expands the definition of youth homelessness by including those who are under age 22 and spend a significant amount of time away from home (i.e., “street youth”), as well as youth under age 18 who are at-risk for separation from their families or unstably housed. Please see Appendix A. for more detailed definitions from each agency.

This homeless youth count and survey will be based on the inclusive definitions of youth homelessness, close to the DHHS definition of homelessness. The working definition of unaccompanied homeless youth of this study is:

  • Unaccompanied youth are defined as (1) youth under age 18 who are living apart from their parents or guardians and (2) young adults age 18 to 24 who are economically and/or emotionally detached from their families and lack an adequate or fixed residence.
  • Homeless youth are defined as (1) youth who live in emergency shelters, transitional housing, hotels/motels, cars, abandoned buildings or apartments, on the street, or in a space not designed for human habitation, (2) youth who are unstably housed, staying temporarily with friends or acquaintances or doubled up, (3) youth who currently stay with parents, relatives, or friends but do not know where to stay in the near future, (4) youth who are waiting for foster care placement, and (5) youth who are at risk of separation from family; have a history of running away from the family, have a parent or guardian who is not willing to provide for her or his basic needs, or are at risk of entering the child welfare or juvenile justice system.
Unstably housed youth are at-risk for experiencing homelessness. Social services and health care providers in Houston/Harris County have a great interest in providing shelters and services for youth who are already homeless and providing prevention services to youth who are at-risk for homelessness. Therefore, by using this expanded definition to include youth at-risk for homelessness, we will be able to identify the scope of the need and the programs and services that address these needs.


Due to the diverse and hidden nature of this population, the accuracy of homeless and unstably housed youth counts largely depend on the collaborative efforts of a wide network of homeless youth shelters and service providers, adult shelters and service providers, and other agencies/or organizations serving youth and families with or without an explicit focus on homelessness. Therefore, the first crucial step of this study will be to develop a comprehensive list of service providers who may have contact with homeless or unstably housed youth and use their expertise in outreach efforts. Additionally, experts in the field suspect that a significant proportion of homeless or unstably housed youth are disconnected from available services. These unsheltered youth are extremely difficult to locate and are often not visibly homeless. Therefore conventional approaches that have been used for the adult PIT count (e.g., observational ‘street’ counts) are not as effective in capturing a true number of youth experiencing homelessness. This study proposes an innovative methodology that has been successfully used in other hard-to-reach populations by integrating population- and Houston/Harris County-specific issues related to the homeless youth counts and survey.

Geographic Areas

This study will take place in Houston/Harris county, including the greater metropolitan area (e.g. Houston city, the Woodlands, and Sugar Land)-- a population of 4.1 million. Harris County is the largest county in Texas and the third-largest county in the U.S.

Disadvantaged neighborhoods and "hot spots" identified by youth service providers​

Map of homeless hotspots in Houston


Auerswald, C.L., Lin, J., Petry, L., & Hyatt, S. (2013). Hidden in Plain Sight: an assessment of Youth Inclusion in Point-In-Time Count of California’s Unsheltered Homeless Population. California Research Bureau. Sacramento, LA

Coalition for the Homeless (n.a.)., retrieved on April 4, 2014.

Childress, S., Reitzel, L. R., Santa Maria, D., Kendzor, D. E., & Moisiuc, A., Businelle, M.S. (April, 2014). Associations of early onset homelessness with mental illness and substance use problems among homeless adults. (In preparation).

Cochran, B. N., Stewart, A. J., Ginzler, J. A., & Cauce, A. M. (2002). Challenges faced by homeless sexual minorities: Comparison of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender homeless adolescents with their heterosexual counterparts. American Journal of Public Health, 92(5), 773-777.

Durso, L. E. and G. J. Gates (2012). Serving our youth: Findings from a national survey of services providers working with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The Williams Institute, University of California-Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA.

Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services. (2013). Counting homeless youth matters – and NY can do better!, Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services, New York: NY

Ferguson, K. M., K. Bender, et al. (2011). Correlates of Street Survival Behaviors in Homeless Young Adults in Four US Cities. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 81(3): 401-409.

Homeless Youth Network – Houston. (n.a.) http://www.homelessyouthnetwork.orf, retrieved on April 4, 2014.

Heckathorn, D. D. (1997). Respondent-driven sampling: a new approach to the study of hidden populations. Social problems, 174-199.

National Alliance to End Homelessness (2009). Federal Funding for Homeless Assistance Programs, Including for Youth, National Alliance to End Homelessness.

National Alliance to End Homelessness (n.a.). Youth,, retrieved on April 4, 2014.

Rice, E., Barman-Adhikari, A., Rhoades, H., Winetrobe, H., Fulginiti, A., Astor, R., ... & Kordic, T. (2013). Homelessness experiences, sexual orientation, and sexual risk taking among high school students in Los Angeles. Journal of Adolescent Health, 52(6), 773-778.

Ringwalt, C. L., Greene, J. M., & Robertson, M. J. (1998). Familial backgrounds and risk behaviors of youth with thrownaway experiences. Journal of Adolescence, 21(3), 241-252. Santa Maria, D., Ha, Y., Bezette-Flores, N. Narendorf, S. (2014). “Ten toes down”: Self-care practices of homeless youth. UT Health School of Nursing (In preparation).

Whitbeck, L. B., D. R. Hoyt, et al. (2000). Depressive Symptoms and Co-Occurring Depressive Symptoms, Substance Abuse, and Conduct Problems among Runaway and Homeless Adolescents. Child Development, 71(3): 721-732.

Whitbeck, L. B., X. Chen, et al. (2004). Mental Disorder, Subsistence Strategies, and Victimization among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Homeless and Runaway Adolescents. The Journal of Sex Research, 41(4): 329-342.​


​July 15, 2014​Homeless Youth Expected to Grow With More Crossing The Border
​June 16, 2014​Crean censo de jovenes sin hogar en Texas
​June 15, 2014​Creando un censo de jovenes sin hogar de Houston
​June 10, 2014Sugar Land, Homeless Youth, and Summer Reading Series: Houston Matters
​May 30, 2014​Taking Youth Off the Street
​May 29, 2014​Takin​g Youth Off the Street
​February 7, 2014UHD Students Join Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County's 2014 Homeless Count to Support Unshelted Youth​


Last updated 3/3/2017 4:33 AM