A coalition of local nonprofits—Caritas of Austin, LifeWorks and the SAFE Alliance—has launched an initiative to end youth homelessness in Austin.

According to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, also called ECHO, 607 youth—defined as young adults ages 18-24—experienced homelessness over the course of 2017.

“One of the challenges in working with youth is that so often young people who are homeless are invisible, and they may not find the sort of standard community resources for homeless adults to apply to them, or they may not feel safe accessing those resources,” said Erin Goodison, director of supportive housing for SAFE.

In January 2017 the city of Austin/Travis County homelessness response system was awarded $5.2 million by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program to end youth homelessness.

As the area's lead homelessness prevention agency ECHO developed a plan to prevent and end youth homelessness, which was released in December 2017.

Following this plan Caritas, LifeWorks and SAFE launched a rapid rehousing initiative for homeless youth Oct. 1.

It fits into a broader action plan to end homelessness across all age groups that was approved by Austin City Council in April and is contingent upon an additional $30 million annually—double the current spending from public, private and nonprofit sources—that has yet to be raised.

The youth homelessness initiative is modeled off the city’s Homeless Veterans Initiative, which began in 2014 and led to a functional zero-rate of veteran homelessness—meaning that the number of people experiencing homelessness never exceeds the number of people returning to housing—two years later.

Rapid rehousing is a nationally recognized best practice that helps those who have been homeless for less than a year. Furnished with a temporary housing subsidy, they are better able to access other support services—such as job training and counseling—and generally stabilize in six to 18 months.

“Housing is really the foundation,” said Jason Phillips, who manages the housing stability program at Caritas. “We can provide counseling services and stuff like that in the home, but without housing we can’t do that.”

An important component of this initiative is seeking feedback from youth who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness on how to improve services.

Erin Whelan, senior division director of housing and homeless services at LifeWorks, which shelters more than 140 Austin youth each night, said the organization has adapted its shelter environment and counseling model based on such feedback.

“Too many beds in the same place feels so traumatic to them,” Whelan said, and may be less appealing to sleeping on the streets.

In response LifeWorks has adopted a more humanistic approach, paying attention to the way its shelter smells and offering more peer-support counseling services in neutral spaces, such as the youth’s own apartment or in coffee shops, “that feel more equal,” Whelan said.

The collaborative approach is intended both to maximize resources—Caritas is a local expert in rapid rehousing, LifeWorks in counseling and SAFE in abuse prevention—and to offer youth more options as they move into housing.

“One of the real powerful parts of this collaboration is allowing the program participants the choice of where to obtain services and who to obtain services from,” Phillips said.

Since the initiative began in October the collaborative has identified nearly 300 youth experiencing homelessness and begun connecting them to housing and other support services.

This work will continue into the new year with the goal of achieving a functional zero rate of youth homelessness in Austin by 2020, despite the rising cost of living in Austin.

“It’s really pricing out so many of our vulnerable community members from stable housing,” Goodison said. “So I’m very excited that SAFE is partnering with Caritas and LifeWorks to try and make sure that Austin stays the kind of community that is an exciting, supportive and vibrant place of young people to … start their lives and careers.”