Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon, Making Strides to End Youth Homelessness

Since the adoption of the Federal Framework to End Youth Homelessness in 2012, the Council’s Interagency Working Group on Ending Youth Homelessness has made progress around the two broad areas for action: 1) increasing data on youth homelessness and 2) building community capacity to respond to youth homelessness. Council agencies have supported the improvement in counting youth as part of Point-in-Time counts, initiated community planning efforts, supported pilot projects, and launched the integration of Runaway and Homeless Youth Management Information System (RHYMIS) and Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data.

USICH and our Council agencies are fully committed to achieving our goal of ending youth homelessness in 2020, but we know there is a lot more work to be done. At the July 2015 Council meeting, we officially launched the second phase of work under the Framework, focusing on strategies to increase community-level capacity by developing and testing innovations in services and programs. In the coming weeks, USICH will be releasing more details on the vision for that work, with Council agencies committed to taking action to provide communities with the tools they need to advance progress.

Efforts in communities across the country to develop and test innovative approaches are inspiring and informing this next phase. During the July 2015 Council meeting, we had an opportunity to hear from Jon Bradley from Preble Street in Portland, Maine, and Mary Li from Multnomah County Department of County Human Services in Oregon regarding their local efforts to implement a more coordinated and comprehensive response to youth homelessness. Jon and Mary shared their successes, their lessons learned, and the challenges that they continue to tackle.

Despite the continued fragmentation in services and the inadequacy of resources, these communities are pressing forward with resolve to improve the lives of youth, navigating challenges and problem-solving issues as they go. They epitomize the ideal of “keeping youth at the center of the work”—thinking about the kind of response we’d expect if it were our own child or family member who was trying to access services, the expectations we would have for their long-term success as they transition to adulthood, and the kinds of resources that should be available to them.

YouthCount! Helps Understand Homelessness in Maine
Jon Bradley

Jon Bradley, Preble Street, Portland, MaineFor 40 years, Preble Street has led the effort to end homelessness in Portland, Maine. Originally focused on adults experiencing homelessness, Preble Street expanded its efforts to end homelessness among youth and, in 1996, made its first foray into responding to the needs of youth experiencing homelessness by opening a teen drop-in center. The drop-in center provides:

  • Access to a resource center that serves hundreds of youth who are struggling with substance use and mental health disorders, trauma, and institutional histories, and those who are disconnected from family and/or guardians
  • Meals, clothing, showers, crisis intervention, and activities that promote leadership development
  • A low-barrier, harm-reduction approach to services and housing, which successfully ensures that youth maintain treatment and support over time and ultimately increases housing stability

Based on local research and recognizing that youth needed a greater array of interventions and services, Preble Street has since begun developing a comprehensive Teen Services Division that offers a continuum of services and housing for Portland’s youth experiencing homelessness. In 2015, Preble Street led a statewide “Youth Count!” initiative to obtain a more accurate enumeration of youth experiencing homelessness in Maine. The inadequacy of the Point-in-Time count that occurs in mid-winter, concern about understanding the numbers in rural parts of the state, and a desire to better understand the path of the runaway and homeless youth population from couch surfing to shelter were key factors in prioritizing the count. 

In 2014, when one of four youth shelters closed and the need for maintaining existing funding for services was questioned by several legislators based on the PIT count, it became clear that we needed to do a better job of explaining the limitations of the PIT count in enumerating the volume and nature of youth instability in Maine. With a grant from the Butler Family Fund, and assistance from the Statewide Homeless Youth Group partners and the University of New England, Preble Street led a two-week effort to count the number of runaway and homeless youth on one night in May 2015. A detailed survey with more than 240 youth provided valuable information about issues and barriers confronting this population. 

Initial findings reveal that there are many youth who remain in rural communities when leaving their families or guardians, often by couch surfing, and that when youth arrive at shelters located in urban centers, they are more likely to be literally homeless and disconnected from supports and resources. Many youth appear to want to stay in school, near friends and family, but eventually lose protective factors. This points to a pathway toward youth homelessness and to opportunities to prevent that migration and increased risk by working with youth, families, and supports in their home towns. In a rural state such as Maine, the challenge is to work more closely with local schools, law enforcement, and community groups to identify and obtain services for runaway and homeless youth.

Preble Street and the Statewide Homeless Youth Group partners are committed to using these findings to strengthen our efforts to end youth homelessness in Maine.

Read Jon Bradley’s Full Expert Brief

Coordinated Response Helps Youth Most in Need in Oregon
Mary Li

Mary Li, Multnomah County, OregonMultnomah County has taken significant steps towards implementing a more comprehensive and coordinated response to youth homelessness, known as the Multnomah County Homeless Youth Continuum (HYC). For more than 15 years, the HYC has operated a single, integrated, and coordinated enterprise that provides 24/7 shelter and crisis services and promotes developmental outcomes in order to achieve a long-term impact for youth experiencing homelessness. Through the strategic investment of both public and private community resources, the HYC shares risk, outcomes, investment, and decision-making among all partners, local government included.

When the community first began to envision their desired system of care, they asked themselves what they expected for their own children and how they would want their children to be treated if they ever became homeless. The answers to these questions led Multnomah County to implement a coordinated system of access into a single system of care, because it was better for youth – not because it was a funding requirement. By continuously focusing on shared community values, such as this, as the driver of program model, service delivery, and funding decisions, the HYC has been able to achieve significant socio-economic outcomes for youth. 

The HYC is organized to build developmental assets as a means by which lasting housing stability, educational attainment, and employment are achieved. Culturally specific and responsive practices are foundational. The HYC has built a system of care that provides safety, stability, and permanency services to interrupt current youth homelessness but does not prevent youth homelessness. By achieving developmental outcomes that lead to the achievement of socio-economic outcomes, including housing, education, and employment, the HYC also aims to prevent adult homelessness. System success is measured by the achievement of developmental outcomes under a Positive Youth Development framework. This includes:

  • A relationship with at least one competent, caring adult;
  • Consistent high expectations for the capacity to achieve; and
  • Opportunities to make decisions that are meaningful to one’s own life (beyond socio-economic measures).

Read Mary Li’s Full Expert Brief


Jasmine Hayes serves as Policy Director at USICH, leading the agency’s partnerships with other Federal agencies related to preventing and ending homelessness among children, youth, and families.   

Jon Bradley serves as Associate Director of Preble Street in Portland, Maine. Jon is a leader in the service continuum for homeless youth and adults in Maine and is spearheading Maine's first statewide Homeless Youth Count.

Mary Li serves as Director of the Community Services Division and the Community Action Director for Multnomah County, Oregon. She has been with Multnomah County for more than 25 years.

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