Homelessness in Orange County increases yet our kids remain invisible

By Shelby Feliciano-Sabala, Chief Partnership Officer

The HUD Point-in-Time (PIT) count is an annual effort mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to estimate the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night across the country.

This count provides a snapshot of homelessness, focusing only on those who are unsheltered, in emergency shelters, and transitional housing. While the HUD PIT count is a valuable tool for understanding the scope of homelessness, it falls short in capturing the full extent of the crisis, especially among youth and families. The PIT count tends to overlook those who are doubling or tripling up with other families, staying in motels, or living in other unstable housing situations like couch surfing, which are common scenarios for students experiencing homelessness like those we support at Project Hope Alliance.

This year’s PIT count shows homelessness in Orange County is growing yet our youth continue to be invisible.

The definitions of homelessness by HUD and under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act differ significantly, which impacts the visibility of youth experiencing homelessness in statistics and support services. HUD’s definition is restrictive, focusing on individuals in shelters or unsheltered locations like parks. In contrast, the McKinney-Vento Act, which governs the education of homeless children and youth, includes a broader range of unstable living situations, such as those living doubled up, in motels, couch surfing or other temporary accommodations, are unaccompanied youth, or are fleeing from violence. This year’s Point in Time count identified 685 children and 308 transitional age youth (18-24) while we know McKinney Vento identified over 25,000 youth experiencing homelessness in Orange County. This broader and more inclusive definition of homelessness under McKinney-Vento is crucial for identifying and supporting students, as it reflects the realities of their unstable living conditions more accurately than the HUD definition.

It is the invisibility that is challenging because youth experiencing homelessness are literally not being seen or counted during the PIT count, yet all of our housing resources and public funds are contingent on the HUD definition of adult homelessness and the PIT count. Some of our youth who are forced to sleep on a friend’s couch, or sleeping in their car, or sleeping unhoused won’t be captured because their living situation fluctuates. This seems the challenges they are experiencing are not being captured, subsequently affecting resources and support. Project Hope Alliance, along with our friends at Orangewood Foundation, were recently invited by United Way to speak about youth homelessness in Orange County.

We know that youth are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness as an adult if they do not graduate from high school, so counting them now, before they experience chronic homelessness will help us provide support and prevention of generational homelessness.

Project Hope Alliance is at the forefront of addressing student homelessness by emphasizing prevention and education as key strategies to disrupt generational homelessness. Our comprehensive approach goes beyond immediate relief, focusing on long-term solutions that empower students and their families. By providing academic support, college and career readiness, life skills, and essential life resources like food, we help students experiencing homelessness to stay in school, achieve academic success, and ultimately break the cycle of poverty. Our expertise and commitment ensure that the specific needs of homeless students are met, highlighting the critical role of education in creating a brighter future for these vulnerable youth. Through our work, we demonstrate that with the right support, every child has the potential to succeed, regardless of their housing situation.

We hope that the different federal definitions can be combined so that a collaborative approach to understanding and combating youth homelessness ensues.