Drawing of a collection of facades of houses.
A project at the VCU School of Social Work focuses on reducing homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth, pregnant and parenting youth.

Project aims to reduce homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth, pregnant and parenting youth

The VCU School of Social Work project aims to address the unique needs of the targeted populations.

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In late March, Gov. Ralph Northam announced 38 grants totaling $6 million through the Virginia Housing Trust Fund to reduce homelessness in Virginia. One of the projects receiving a grant is housed at the School of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University. It focuses specifically on reducing homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth, pregnant and parenting youth, and young people at the intersection of these groups.

“We have heard from young people involved in the work to end youth homelessness that existing systems and services often make their experiences invisible, which limits their ability to get their needs met,” said M. Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Social Work. “This is particularly true for young people living at the intersections of identities, like LGBTQ+ pregnant and parenting youth. We aim to increase visibility and develop a program that centers their needs and experiences, while drawing on the power of peer support and connections.”

M. Alex Wagaman, Ph.D.
M. Alex Wagaman, Ph.D.

Wagaman and Maurice N. Gattis, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Social Work, will lead the project in partnership with community organizations Advocates for Richmond Youth, Side by Side, Nationz Foundation and St. Joseph’s Villa. A planning team will include representatives from each organization, as well as young people with lived experience from each of the targeted populations.

“This grant provides the opportunity to develop an intervention by utilizing theory and engaging practitioners and people with lived experience of homelessness,” Gattis said. “The specific needs of LGBTQ+ youth, as well as pregnant and parenting youth experiencing homelessness, are often not adequately addressed in service contexts and the resulting program model will benefit our community and the commonwealth by addressing their unique needs.”

The goal is to develop a shared housing model, using private market housing, that is tailored to meet the unique needs of people 18 to 24 experiencing homelessness and who are from the target population groups, which are disproportionately affected by housing insecurity and homelessness.

“We’re going to do focus groups with the populations that the model is being built for. And we’re going to spend a year just thinking about, getting feedback, designing and going to national and state conferences to get feedback on this model as well. And then after a year, [we plan to] hopefully apply for additional funding to actually implement the program,” Gattis said.

Maurice N. Gattis, Ph.D.
Maurice N. Gattis, Ph.D.

The shared housing model might explore, for example, the potential of a one-bedroom, one-lease approach for multiroom apartments.

“If you put four young people in a four-bedroom apartment and you have support for them, and one of those young people breaks their lease, it’s just that one young person [who leaves],” Wagaman said. “For the rest of the young people, their housing is secure.”

Wagaman added that their research has shown peer support is an important piece for sustainable and stable housing among the targeted populations.

The project will be conducted through the newly created Center for Youth-Engaged Research to Prevent and End Youth Homelessness, or C-PEYH, a research center in the School of Social Work that aims to design, deliver and test programs and community-based interventions aimed at ending youth homelessness. As in the case with this project, the center works in direct partnership with young people who have lived experience of homelessness and takes an explicit anti-racist and LGBTQ+-affirming approach.

If the project is successful, Wagaman said, it could be an important part of the overarching effort to address homelessness in Richmond and elsewhere.

“We definitely want to continue to support the folks who are doing the really important work of increasing our affordable housing stock,” she said. “In the meantime, we need models that support young people to get into housing that's sustainably affordable.”