A Hidden Population: Navigating COVID-19 with Homeless Youth

By Faith Evanson ⎸ faith.evanson@yale.edu


A “hidden population”— this is how many describe the community of homeless youth in Connecticut. While all adults who are experiencing homelessness enter the system through the 2-1-1 referral service, many minors and young adults enter the system through a variety of channels — whether that be via a school referral, Department of Children and Families (DCF), or other service agencies. These numerous pathways make it difficult to account for how many youth are homeless and what services are needed where. Homeless youth may also enter the system with their families, as runaways, abandoned youth, or unaccompanied migrants. Initiatives like Youth Count host a couple hundred volunteers who go out into the community to conduct thousands of surveys in order to estimate a proper number of youth. Amidst the pandemic, new challenges faced both homeless youth and their service providers. Many organizations and state agencies took alternative measures to ensure homeless youth had access to adequate education, health services, and housing.

Mitigating Barriers to Education

Homeless youth are guaranteed their rights to education and transportation under the “Mckinney Vento Act.” Every school district has a Mckinney Vento liaison, who is responsible for ensuring that all eligible students receive their school choice with immediate enrollment and provided transportation.The “Mckinney Vento Act” expands the definition of homelessness to encompass a wider range of circumstances. Not only does it include students who lack a fixed and stable residence but also migratory students and students who are between homes or “couch-surfing.” This definition allows for schools and districts to account for more of the “hidden population.”

For much of 2020, Connecticut’s schools, like other states, operated in a virtual format in accordance with state and federal laws and recommendations. For a homeless student, the transition to virtual learning might have meant a lack of access to food, WiFi, ideal study spaces, and other essentials to online learning. Carl Asikainen, project manager at the Connecticut Coalition of the Homeless (CCH), recalls that “more than one-fourth” of students never returned to classes following the March 2020 shutdown. Districts across the state have tried mitigating the concerns of online schooling by attempting to maximize attendance through the distribution of portable WiFi routers, computers, school supplies, and meals.

New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) operated remotely for the first half of the 2021 school year and slowly began opening schools back up for in-person instruction. Daniel Diaz, NHPS coordinator of parent engagement, acknowledged that the traditional means to identify homeless students by recognizing their specific transportation needs was not an accurate measure while school was online. Students could not request a change in their transportation needs due to homelessness because classes were completely virtual. As students began to return to in-person school, the number of Mckinney Vento students increased.

Diaz emphasized the extra pressure the pandemic brought on towards the effort of preventing homelessness, “some families were homeless, which we're working with, but some of them were just on the verge.” In response to this pressure, the district made extra efforts in assisting families with meals and technology. The Mckinney Vento Program within NHPS adapted its approaches this year by dropping off food for students whose family members have tested positive for COVID. The program also connected families with community collaborators, who helped secure groceries for families in need. Even outside the school year, NHPS has a wide range of summer programs for both homeless and non-homeless families. The ultimate challenge for school districts was maintaining the safety of delivery workers, students, and families.

Accessing Healthcare

The homeless community was one of the most at risk of infection for COVID-19. Many homeless youth cannot always effectively social distance, and they frequently utilize public transportation, which increases their risk. Free COVID-testing sites that did not require insurance, an appointment, and an address, unlike other pharmacies across the state, have opened up. An additional concern with testing is getting the necessary health care in the case of a positive result.

Basic center programs like Youth Continuum offered help in obtaining health insurance. Children and youth up to age 19 can also qualify for the free or low-cost Husky B Health Insurance. Although this is a solution for a portion of homeless youth, there has been an increase in the number of unaccompanied minors residing in Connecticut. Under the Affordable Care Act, unaccompanied minors do not qualify for this insurance unless they hold an eligible immigration status. Supposing extended stays at hospitals are needed for COVID treatment, this could lead to large sums of debt that may increase their period of homelessness.

Free vaccination sites have also begun setting up across the state and have been welcoming homeless youth. The harder step was disseminating the information out to sheltered and unsheltered youth. However, for youth 18 and under, it is unlikely that they will be able to receive the vaccine without parental or legal guardian permission in Connecticut. This leaves isolated or unaccompanied youth without many options and most vulnerable.

Resource Availability and Shelter Capacity

Decreased capacities in shelters due to health or safety concerns was one of the most concerning issues brought on by the pandemic. Shelters and crisis response centers operated at 50 percent occupancy, which left many homeless unsheltered. Ryan Beach, director of development and communications at CCH, discussed the temporary hoteling of the homeless partially funded by FEMA grants as a response to the outstanding number of unhoused people. Beach adds “hoteling was funded to some degree by FEMA, but across the board, I did not think there is a shelter or homeless service provider in the state didn't feel the effects of the pandemic.” Another response was the opening of additional temporary shelters. This led to an increased cost to run shelters as more staff was needed to operate the second shelters and delegate hoteling.

These efforts were not always successful as highlighted by Chris Venable, a homeless youth liaison for the Journey Home organization. “[Hoteling] didn't change the number of youth that were sheltered, although some... decided that they did not want to be in shelters because of the pandemic, so they actually opted to stay in their car,” Venable said. It is clear that many homeless youth are being forced to choose between their health and adequate shelter. Venable added landlords have been ever more reluctant to lease out units to low income individuals due to the eviction moratorium.

For runaway youth, some of the best resources they can utilize are basic centers, transitional living, and street outreach programs, according to Carline Charmelus, the collective impact & equity manager at the Partnership for Stronger Communities. Basic centers offer a range of services including shelter, medical care, food services, family and mental health counseling, and afterschool programs. Transitional living programs offer some of the same services but focus on older youth and emphasize job and career readiness. Street outreach programs have mentors and social workers who support street youth through granting access to emergency shelter, providing survival aid and tactics, as well as treatment and counseling. All of these programs have been “decompressed” by reducing the number of in-person interactions per day.

Some of these services like mental health counseling have been done remotely. Other mental health services have been hotlines for general help, people of color youth, LGBTQ+ youth, sexual assault or harassment victims, and more. There are also Telehealth virtual meetings for youth, who need to speak with a clinician or psychiatrist. Venable noticed a decline in missed appointments because clients or patients can more readily access resources. Unfortunately, other programs like food services and street outreach cannot be utilized virtually.

The efforts to get homeless youth off the streets and into stable homes was not put on pause because of the pandemic but was definitely slowed. Social distancing and “decompressment” mandates have pushed the states and providers to abandon traditional approaches to their service. These challenges have helped shine a light on non-traditional or virtual initiatives like the Shelter app, the Cara App and the DreamKit app. Created by Mariana Marmolejo, Yale MPH ‘24, the Dream Kit app is designed to pair youth in New Haven, Connecticut under the age of 25 with resources such as mentorship and employment opportunities. They are also rewarded with points that translate into currency they can use at physical locations.

Unfortunately, the scale at which the pandemic has impacted homeless youth is unclear because it is so difficult to account for all the youth who need these services. Although surveys are still being conducted, as local and state collaborators buckle down for the 2021-22 school year, concerns of the Delta variant and its potential impact on the state’s progress brew.


Writer’s Reflection

I wrote this article because I’ve always been passionate about solving the issue of chronic and episodic homelessness. I did some work with non-profit organizations on homelessness prevention and service back home in Kentucky, so I was curious to see how the systems in other states operate and how they differ. Throughout my research and interviewing, I found that the state is very responsive to changes and the needs of the homeless. These needs can range from food services to employment to domestic dispute resolution. It’s just the matter of figuring out what those needs are for each individual and how to effectively solve them. My source material came mostly from organizations involved in the advocacy and policy making towards the eradication of homelessness who collected data, such as, the Connecticut Coalition for the Homeless, Journey Home, and Partnership for Stronger Communities. Some of my other sources were government agencies and school districts webpages which aided me in understanding some of the law present and relevant practices by schools. My source material came mostly from organizations involved in the advocacy and policy making towards the eradication of homelessness who collected data, such as, the Connecticut Coalition for the Homeless, Journey Home, and Partnership for Stronger Communities. Some of my other sources were government agencies and school districts webpages which aided me in understanding some of the law present and relevant practices by schools. Many of the organizations I interviewed worked in the Greater New Haven Area. I think as a Yale Student it is easy to forget about the community that surrounds campus, and the way we impact their lives as well as the way they impact ours, and I hope this article is a subtle reminder.