Last week, policy makers and officials from the five top Federal Agencies whose work intersects with homeless youth gathered together to watch The Homestretch and talk about what they saw. Being able to facilitate meaningful, forward-moving dialogue about the homeless youth crisis is at the center of our impact campaign, and this candid, in-depth conversation at the Federal level demonstrated the powerful impact this film is already having in Washington, DC.
Terrance F. Ross, author of a recent article that appeared in The Atlantic, Young, Homeless - and Invisible, moderated a thought-provoking discussion that centered around how all the agencies can work better to both understand and serve the needs of homeless youth. He began by talking about his own personal discovery that "homelessness is not just houseless-ness” and asked panelists for their immediate responses to the film.
Mark Greenberg (ACF/HHS) expressed one of the stumbling blocks in searching for meaningful change, "I think for lots of people, issues around youth homelessness are pretty abstract. And they're not associated with individual stories, and they're not associated with the kinds of stories that one sees in this film. So I think it helps in moving this to a much more direct discussion about the realities of the lives of the young people."
Communication between agencies is key, and several of the panelists talked specifically about things they learned by watching the film, Sanzanna Dean (OJJDP) talked about how "a light bulb moment for me, was the realization of the number of homeless children in the school system, so much so in the city of Chicago that there was a need for a homeless coordinator in each school... That was something for me that was - 'Wow, there is a homeless coordinator in the school.'"
This fact was no surprise to Joaquin Tamayo (Dept. of Ed), who talked about his experiences as a former High School Teacher and Principal. He spoke not only about making sure kids in crisis understand "we've got their backs," but about the deep need to listen to and learn from the youth themselves, "I certainly hope that we can get this into every single school in the country. I am a firm believer that while we have our adult work to do, we need a movement among young people in this country to tackle this challenge; we need our young people - more than ever before - to remind us and to hold our feet to the fire that the decisions we make today are going to reverberate and impact their lives and their own kids, and the challenges that they have to face in the next generation."
The sheer lack of capacity in our social services for homeless youth was recognized by everyone in the room. Jennifer Ho (HUD) talked about how the film really showed the three pillars of services that are needed - a safe place to go at the moment of crisis, a stable environment as soon as possible afterwards, and the supportive services (whether education, employment, counseling, health care, etc.) needed to build a future, "People always hear us talking about data and numbers, and I think people forget that why we need better data is that we need to know how many of those things we need for whom. And so the heart of it, I think what your story says, is that these are the three pillars. And now we just need to figure out what are the right investment things and policy changes and blah blah blah to get them."
Jasmine Hays (USICH) talked specifically about the scope of a problem that spans multiple agencies, “It just reminds me that, at our core, we need to be connected to people. Every young person that was sharing their story, what I saw, there's just something innate about needing to be connected to people, to have affirmation and support no matter where you are in your life. And that the role of all of our systems contribute to that, and that despite being connected to so many systems, there's often a feeling that no one owns these issues or owns these kids. And the reality is that, actually, we all are responsible... What we're talking about is not simply lack of housing, this is a social justice issue."
In his questions to the panel, Mr. Ross brought up the fact that Federal agencies tend to interact with homeless youth in very different ways, down to the fact that there are current disagreements in Washington over the very definition of homelessness for youth (learn more about a new bill to change this). He echoed comments about lack of agency ownership of the issue and challenged the panelists to respond directly to the idea that we were playing "hot potato" with the nation's homeless youth. Listen to a compete audio recording of the panel below.
After the moderated discussion was a lively Q&A with the audience where individuals expressed frustration at slow moving change, ideas for how to look at funding sources differently, and innovative new models for programs to help homeless youth. Our own Impact Producer Erin Sorenson asked if the panelists would commit to holding similar roundtable discussions with the film on the regional level. The response was a unanimous, "Yes."
This special Interagency Screening and Policy Discussion took place in the Hubert Humphrey Auditorium of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services and we want to express huge thanks to William Bentley, Kendra Fields, Karal Busch, Christopher Halloway, Charles Capehart and everyone at HHS who helped coordinate and support this great event, also to Chi Do and Tamara Gould at ITVS for co-sponsoring (and for the incredible donuts!), and big congratulations to our own awesome Impact Producer Erin Sorenson who made it all happen.
If you want to learn more about using The Homestretch to spark dialogue and make change in your community, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org