Photo from the recently released report, conducted in part by the local agency "The Learning Web," that tracked homeless youth in the Ithaca area

ITHACA, N.Y. — Every four years since 2003, a local agency has published a report based on interviews with young homeless people in Tompkins County.

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This time, the researchers working with the local non-profit The Learning Web found that nearly half of the more than 200 homeless youth in the Ithaca area were either pregnant or parenting.

That’s up from the 19 percent of homeless youth who were parenting or pregnant in 2011, the last time the study was conducted.

Photo from the recently released report, conducted in part by the local agency “The Learning Web,” that tracked homeless youth in the Ithaca area
Photo from the recently released report, conducted in part by the local agency “The Learning Web,” that tracked homeless youth in the Ithaca area

The homeless youth — who are referred to by the study as being in an “independent living” situation — are between 13 and 24 years old.

“That’s of particular concern — it’s been lower in previous years,” said Jane Powers, of Cornell’s Brofenbrenner Center for Translational Research, of the number of Ithaca area homeless youth who are pregnant or parenting. (Cornell researchers have helped The Learning Web with the study.)

“We’re talking about another generation being born in this instability. And that’s very frightening.”

Sally Schwartzbach, associate director of The Learning Web, said that many of the parents who are homeless youth are forced to live separate from their children.

Many of these young people have relatives take care of their children while the parents try to find stable housing, Schwartzbach said.

“The reason they’re not (living with their child) is not out of choice, but out of necessity: For many of them, their housing is unstable and that puts them in jeopardy of losing custody of their child,” she said.

Limitations of the data

Powers stressed that the research was not epidemiological. In other words, the findings don’t amount to statistical proof of a trend — “it doesn’t mean it’s actually higher,” Powers said.

For instance, one possible variable influencing the results: The data are highly dependent on research assistants (themselves current or former homeless youth), who go out and collect the interviews for the study.

This year, according to both Powers and the report, many of these research assistants are themselves parents and therefore perhaps more likely to have found other parents to talk to for the research.

“Several of the research assistants had children themselves and surveyed friends and acquaintances who were parents,” the report says.

Sally Schwartzbach. Photo courtesy of the Learning Web’s website
Sally Schwartzbach. Photo courtesy of the Learning Web’s website

Still, the report notes that the high incidence of homeless youth with their own children is troubling — whether it signifies an uptick or not.

“Parenting is a difficult task even with a stable home and financial and emotional support. These young people are struggling to provide adequate shelter, food, and education for themselves, let alone for a child,” the report says.

“If the cycle of poverty is to be interrupted, these young parents require additional support.”

3 other takeaways from the report

The Ithaca Voice will be reporting on other facets of the report, which was just released and is slated to be discussed by the Tompkins County Human Services Coalition later this week.

For now, here are three key takeaways from it:

1 — ‘Really off the radar screen’ | Powers said that many of the problems found during this study were the same ones that came up in previous years — such as a lack of access to housing and steady employment.

She also stressed that this is a segment of the population that is overlooked — sometimes to an even greater extent than adult homeless populations.

A traditional way for counting homeless populations is something called a “point in time count” that adds up the number of people at soup kitchens and shelters on a day in the winter. But that method often “vastly underestimates” homeless youth who are less likely to use those services, Powers said.

“They’re really off the radar screen due to, in part, the lack of trust for traditional service systems,” Powers said of homeless youth.

The report talked to 208 young people between February and April 2015. It estimates that this represents close to 21 percent of the homeless youth population in the county.

2 — Report’s use for funding | On first glance, the report may strike readers as being interesting but ultimately removed from really helping the besieged populations its devoted to documenting.

The reality is just the opposite. In fact, the report is crucial for improving the lives of homeless youth in Ithaca because it gives officials crucial data for applying for government funding, according to Powers.

“The (Independent Living Survey) projects have generated solid data used to develop state and federal funding sources bringing in over $260,000 in expanded services for homeless youth,” the report states.

3 — Housing situation fluid for many | One of the report’s findings is that many of the homeless youth sometimes find temporary housing.

For instance, the average respondent to the study said he or she had stayed in two different places within the last week; some had stayed in as many as 11 different places over the same period of time.

“These youth are staying with a parent one night and getting kicked out the next. Just because they are living with a parent, it does not mean that their housing is stable. Like their counterparts in communities across the country, homeless youth in our county piece together their housing using every possible resource and network,” the report says.

“Short periods of adequate housing are intertwined with periods of inadequate, unsafe housing, and no housing at all.”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.