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Alameda County has some shelters and programs tailored to homeless youth, like these tiny houses in East Oakland. But young people have identified a need for additional services, which could be funded by a new federal grant. Credit: Pete Rosos

Thousands of people live without permanent housing in Alameda County, and there are numerous programs offering them temporary relief or a safe place to sleep. But among the emergency shelters, transitional housing, and drop-in programs, only a small number of facilities and services are specifically designed to serve young people. 

“Homelessness is a traumatic experience,” said Brandy Mays, a 29-year-old Fremont resident who was unhoused at three different points growing up in the Bay Area. “Youth need counseling, therapy, and people who can listen to them. At a lot of these shelters, they feel staff is not properly trained to deal with these issues.” 

Mays and her peers now have a rare opportunity to share these concerns, and their ideas for improving youth homelessness services. 

Last month, Alameda County received a $6.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, to come up with a “community plan to end youth homelessness.” The plan must focus on the needs of people ages 18 to 24. At last estimation, in 2019, there were 753 homeless people in that age group in the county.

The federal government required that youth play a prominent role in crafting the application for the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program, or YHDP, grants—and young people will lead the planning process, as well.

“It was really nice to be recognized and listened to,” said Mays, who’s been involved in the YHDP process through her work on the county’s Youth Action Board, where she serves as a “peer mentor” supporting other young people who’ve experienced homelessness. 

“Youth today feel their voice isn’t heard,” she said. “People say, ‘They’re too young, they haven’t had the life experience.’”

Alameda County applied for the grant once before but wasn’t selected, said Kerry Abbott, who heads the county’s Office of Homeless Care and Coordination. This year the funding awards were doubled, since the program had been paused last year. County representatives were thrilled to hear they’d been selected.

The $6.6 million will fund the roughly six-month, youth-led planning process, and can be applied to the first two years of the programs and services the young people come up with. But the grant comes with another benefit: the potential to continue receiving as much as $3.3 million in federal funds annually—up to half the initial award—to carry out the homelessness programs.

“It’s really impactful because it’s not just one-time funding,” Abbott said. As long as you propose HUD-eligible activities you can continue that funding indefinitely. That’s an amazing advantage of this type of program.”

What programs might be included in the plan?

 “There is such a diverse pool of needs, just like there are diverse experiences being unhoused,” said Hannah Moore, youth services coordinator with the county.

During the application process and since then, the Youth Action Board has hosted focus groups and workshops at libraries and shelters, such as Covenant House in Oakland and the Ashland Youth Center. Moore, Mays, and Abbott said some clear themes emerged during those discussions with young unhoused residents.

Many want youth-specific “navigation” centers or hubs—places one can go to get connected to a range of services, from housing to employment and mental health help. “The things youth need to be able to progress through life after high school,” Mays said. 

As is, residents often have to travel to numerous different sites to address all their needs, and the resource hubs that do exist are geared toward adults. 

Mays said there’s also a big appetite for “life coaches, counselors, and therapists”—adults with expertise in guiding youth through their unique challenges.

“I stayed at two transitional housing [facilities],” said Mays. “Some of the staff was not trained to deal with youth when they were having an outburst or a meltdown. You really have to have a heart for the youth and be sympathetic and empathetic.”

“All over the system there’s been a request for peer mentorship and peer support,” as well, said Abbott. Many young people recognize that other youth who’ve gone through something similar are often best positioned to provide guidance.

Others have requested 24-hour drop-in programs or community centers, because many facilities currently close around 5 p.m., Abbott said.

Other youth who are ready to move into their own apartments have called for more housing subsidies to help them pay rent, or more intensive case management during that transition.

“A lot of time, when you’re homeless, you’re in survival mode,” Mays said. “When you’re housed, it’s a physical transition and it’s also a mental and psychological transition. I have to pay rent, and navigate this whole new world.” The grant will likely fund vocational education and career training, too.

Moore said the structure of the YHDP itself responds to common requests by young people to have a say in the programs available to them.

“That comes up a lot in our conversations: wanting to be in decision-making spaces and feel valued and respected in those spaces,” she said.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.