‘At a higher risk’: COVID-19 impacts youth experiencing homelessness

Infographic about youth experiencing homelessness in Alameda County by race and age
Connor Lin/Senior Staff

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When Greg Ritzinger was in his early 20s, he found himself without permanent housing and unable to fully access public facilities or amenities, while facing other difficulties as a former youth experiencing homelessness, or YEH.

Now, at the age of 29, Ritzinger is a UC Berkeley student and a member of Youth and Allies Against Homelessness, or YAAH, a group committed to ending homelessness. Considered to be an overlooked population, YEH are generally individuals under the age of 26 who are experiencing homelessness.

The COVID-19 pandemic has positioned YEH to be at the greatest risk of being affected by the pandemic, according to a UC Berkeley School of Public Health report titled “On the COVID-19 Front Line and Hurting” that was released last summer. In addition to being a physical health threat, COVID-19 impacts the well-being of YEH by limiting their basic needs of shelter, food and safety.

YAAH’s current agenda is to address the unmet needs YEH have faced since the start of the pandemic, according to Ritzinger.

“We recognize that YEH have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and this in turn can affect a successful trajectory to adulthood,” Ritzinger said in an email. “We hope to learn what steps can be made to address the concerns we see arise and then propose and advocate for the necessary policy change that can rectify these issues.”

UC Berkeley report findings on YEH demographics

YAAH is a part of Innovations for Youth, or i4Y, an organization committed to showing the structural and social inequalities that youth face.

Working with the School of Public Health, it was found that homeless assistance providers in the Bay Area reported an increase in youth seeking their services, and according to Coco Auerswald, i4Y co-founder and campus associate professor, this is still representative of the population today.

Additionally, i4Y found that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ youth were disproportionately represented in populations of YEH who seek help from providers.

Black youth made up 75% of minors who accessed supportive and housing services in the city of Berkeley between 2006 and 2017, according to Homeless Management Information System, or HMIS, data. However, only about 8% of Berkeley residents are Black.

“There are two other groups worth highlighting,” Auerswald said. “Although the numbers are small, Indigenous youth are disproportionately represented. LGBTQ youth are also disproportionately represented, especially transgender youth.”

Andrea Mackey, YAAH project coordinator, said in an email that a majority of available resources for individuals experiencing homelessness are directed toward adults rather than youth. According to HMIS data from 2006 to 2017, 2,293 out of 9,000 individuals experiencing homelessness who accessed services in the city of Berkeley — roughly one-quarter — first sought help when they were under the age of 26.

Alameda County has less than 10 shelter beds for YEH under 18 and less than 100 beds for YEH between the ages of 18 and 24, according to Mackey.

Mackey added in the email that in Berkeley, youth shelters require individuals to sleep in “one large room” that does not allow for social distancing. Mackey noted that many other California counties do not provide beds for youth.

With the closure of UC Berkeley campus restrooms during the pandemic and the increased use of public city facilities, Mackey said youth struggle to maintain personal hygiene. Additionally, with the rise of telehealth services, YEH have limited access to those services.

“66% of youth indicated they were in need of more than 5 resources during the pandemic,” Mackey said in the email. “The most occurring number of resources needed was 8 which is nearly half of all the resources listed. Employment was the number one resource young people indicated they were in need of.”

Berkeley Unified School District resources, funding for students experiencing homelessness

For students experiencing homelessness who attend schools in Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, there are certain resources available.

The district currently participates in the Student Transit Pass Program, which provides students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch a Clipper card, according to Melody Royal, BUSD Homeless Outreach Program for Education, or HOPE, counselor. The card can be used for free bus rides, as well as providing a 50% discount on BART.

Prior to the program, BUSD provided transportation for students enrolled in HOPE, according to Royal. However, the transportation was limited to rides to and from school.

As BUSD’s HOPE counselor, Royal offers students experiencing homelessness various resources to help them participate in school and school activities.

When schools were open for in-person attendance, Royal provided a room for HOPE students at Berkeley High School to pick up snacks, school supplies and hygiene products. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Royal ensured all 219 HOPE students had a laptop and Wi-Fi for their classes.

Royal’s position as HOPE counselor is officially coined as the McKinney-Vento counselor, which originates from the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act — a federal act that provides funding for programs to support individuals experiencing homelessness.

However, funding from the act does not address all the miscellaneous needs students experiencing homelessness have, according to Erin Rhoades, executive director of the Berkeley Public Schools Fund.

The Berkeley Public Schools Fund assists students to fulfill their needs, according to Rhoades. The fund started five years ago to help students experiencing homelessness cover senior prom costs. With time, the fund grew to cover other expenses, and last year, the fund was able to cover 10 families’ hotel costs during the pandemic.

“The community donations to this fund has definitely increased,” Rhoades said in an email. “Thanks to the community, during the pandemic, we were able to pay for $60,000 worth of hotel costs.”

Local approaches to YEH assistance

With varying scopes in definitions of homelessness, approaches to assisting individuals experiencing homelessness depend on local and national contexts. Royal criticized the city’s and state’s focus on individuals experiencing homelessness.

One service introduced by the state of California due to the pandemic is Project Roomkey, a program that provides hotel and motel rooms to the state’s unhoused population as protection from COVID-19. The city of Berkeley has been working with the program since last year.

Both Royal and Auerswald, however, noted that the program did not provide rooms for families and youth. According to Auerswald, YEH should be prioritized in the program due to having a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

“Youth experiencing homelessness are at a higher risk of developing COVID-19 compared to housed youth,” Auerswald said. “They’re more likely to have chronic illnesses like asthma, severe mental health challenges and infections like HIV and hepatitis, as well as substance use. All of those put young people at increased risk of negative outcomes.”

Photo of Greg Ritzinger

Greg Ritzinger

Royal added that in her position, once students graduate, she loses contact with them. Before students graduate, Royal advises students to secure housing after high school through Berkeley City College or California’s 211 service.

Through the state’s service number, individuals can connect with local homeless services based on their location. Royal noted, however, that in most cities in the state, the service is “not a very well-run program.”

The service typically does an intake before asking individuals to call again for an interview, which causes a gap that prevents families from accessing services sooner, according to Royal. In Berkeley, through the Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center, the process is smoother, as the service does the intake and interview concurrently.

“We’re very blessed in Berkeley,” Royal said. “They do the intake and the interview all at one time. That’s huge. … I feel really good now when I refer people because I know they won’t fall through the cracks.”

In 2018, Berkeley voters approved Measure P, providing $6 million to $8 million in funding for homeless and mental health services.

The city’s Measure P panel of experts has prioritized the needs of families and youth experiencing homelessness, according to Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín. Since funding from Measure P is independent from state- and federal-mandated priorities, the funds can be focused on families and youth.

Jevon Wilkes, executive director of the California Coalition for Youth — an organization that advocates and supports youth development — said in an email that ending youth homelessness will be the most effective solution to preventing and ending adult homelessness.

With the pandemic, YEH lives have been altered, according to Anoop Bains, YAAH member and former Suitcase Clinic youth/LGBTQ+ clinic director. Bains said in an email that the lack of resources will continue to create obstacles for YEH after the pandemic.

“Homelessness is extremely complex; the reasons one ends up outside are numerous and multi-faceted,” Ritzinger said in the email. “(It’s) important to acknowledge how many students are currently silently struggling- living in their cars or otherwise and afraid to ask for help because of stigma. Perceptions on homelessness need to be looked at.”

Contact Megha Krishnan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @_meghakrishnan_.