Walla Walla Holds Voices of Youth Count

Andy Monserud, Investigative Director

The fight against homelessness in Walla Walla went national this summer. The community is participating in a nationwide study of youth homelessness led by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center for Children. The study’s supporters, including some Whitman students and alumni, hope that it will give Walla Walla a greater insight into the needs of its homeless population and how those needs can be served.

The project, called the “Voices of Youth Count,” consists of quantitative surveys of homeless persons from ages 13-25 in 22 communities across the country and interviews with homeless youth in four of those communities, including Walla Walla. It differs from the annual Department of Housing and Urban Development point-in-time count (often referred to simply as the HUD count) in that it specifically targets young adults, as well as children under 18 and features qualitative interviews in addition to its count. It also focuses entirely on the city of Walla Walla, while the HUD count covers the entire county.

The study is funded through Chapin Hall and its various nationwide partners, meaning that the Walla Walla community bears none of the financial burden. It is also also heavily volunteer-driven and emphasizes the participation of homeless youth themselves to help their peers find services and ensure accurate counts.

The quantitative portion of the study involves pinpointing a number of hotspots around the city and performing counts there, as well as a “stand and be counted” event that took place in Heritage Square this summer. Jennifer Beckmeyer, coordinator of the Community Development Block Grant, and Whitman junior Paloma Romero Lopez, who worked as an intern for Beckmeyer this summer, helped to publicize the count among the homeless youth it targets and to ensure that the count went smoothly.

“We were one of the first to go, so the research group didn’t have as much experience when the study happened here in town,” Romero Lopez said. “So we were a little bit of an experiment, and we gave them some feedback on things that could have gone better. Overall it was pretty good, but there was some thinking and problem-solving on the spot that happened.”

Data from the count is expected to come back late this year, after the completion of the project. In the meantime, Whitman alum Marlee Raible ’16 and fellow volunteer Jacob Coronado are partnering to conduct 40 interviews with homeless youth as part of the study. They started interviewing in mid-July, and plan to finish by the end of October. In the interviews, Raible says, she asks about her subjects’ housing history, focusing on some of the obstacles to stable housing they face or have faced.

“I usually start by asking ‘If you were to talk about your struggles with housing as a story, when would your story begin?’” Raible said.

She added that damaging misperceptions of homeless youth are common among others in the Walla Walla community.

“I’ll talk to a lot of people,” Raible said, “And I’ll tell them I’m doing this homeless youth study, and…people will say ‘Oh, everyone’s on drugs, right?’ or ‘Oh, everyone’s mentally unstable, right?’ and that’s not the case.”

Much more common, she says, are struggles with parents or simply with money. Unaccompanied minors in particular have trouble getting recognition for their situations. One interviewee, Raible noted, had a steady job but was not allowed to open a bank account without a parent. Difficulties like that, Beckmeyer says, are part of why the Voices of Youth count is so important.

“The 18-25 youth is a harder population to serve, just because it’s harder to count [them] but they also have very specific needs,” Beckmeyer said. “They don’t have a support network in place as they’re trying to become adults. And they have to have support through that transition.”