Social work faculty help Richmond secure national award to end youth homelessness

Homeless teenager sitting on the ground with a sign asking for help.
An award to Richmond from A Way Home America will fund efforts to tackle homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color. (Getty Images)

When M. Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., began working five years ago on solutions for Richmond youth facing housing instability, she encountered skeptics. 

“Folks in Richmond were largely saying that we don’t have an issue with youth homelessness here; we don’t need to do anything different than what we’re doing because it’s not one of our problems,” said Wagaman, an associate professor in the VCU School of Social Work. “And the young people were like, ‘well, we think it is.’”

Involving youth directly as members of a participatory action research team, Advocates for Richmond Youth, started to change the narrative on homelessness. That research has informed efforts of a Youth Housing Stability Coalition through the United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg and a youth drop-in center through Commonwealth Catholic Charities – both funded by the Richmond-based Robins Foundation.

That work, in turn, laid the groundwork for the latest positive development, a national award this month for Richmond in the Grand Challenge to tackle homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color. A Way Home America, a national advocacy and research organization, is spending $1.5 million to sponsor awards in 10 cities. 

Wagaman and social work colleague Maurice Gattis, Ph.D., a first-year iCubed visiting scholar and associate professor at the University of Louisville, worked on the grant proposal. Gattis’ work is focused on the intersection of LGBTQIA+ populations and communities.

‘Culmination of five years of work’

“One of the reasons the Grand Challenge opportunity was so attractive was because there is so much synergy with what we are doing here in Richmond,” Wagaman said. “The communities that were ready were the ones best positioned to apply. We had to have key partners sign on, and we had young people who are directly affected at the table. 

“Two of our guiding principles as a coalition have been to be antiracist and LGBTQ+ affirming. This call felt like a perfect fit in terms of where we are trying to head. It’s the culmination of five years of work.” 

The Grand Challenge will operationalize a theory called targeted universalism, which focuses on broad goals by working with specific populations. For the program, that means eliminating all youth homelessness by focusing on the two most affected groups. 

“If you can successfully support LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color, then everybody is going to benefit,” Wagaman said. “Everyone is going to have access to a more just system, access to more of the things they need. So it is really recentering who we are focusing on when we design programs and services, who do we keep in mind.”

From left, Sarah Mikhail, director of the Grand Challenge at A Way Home America, and social work professors Maurice Gattis and M. Alex Wagaman.
From left, Sarah Mikhail, director of the Grand Challenge at A Way Home America, and social work professors Maurice Gattis and M. Alex Wagaman after Richmond was selected one of 10 Grand Challenge cities at the True Colors United Impact Summit in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy photo)

Teams challenged to ‘ride or die’

The award, which starts in October, will run for two years. Funding allows each city to work with a community coach who is a national expert on youth homelessness, and coaches from other communities may come to Richmond to work with its core team. The team also will attend three national training sessions a year with other communities. A Way Home America uses the term “ride or die” teams. 

“It’s a pop culture reference,” said Wagaman, who, along with Gattis, is on the team. “In this context, it’s intended to mean folks are all in and will take the risks and do what it takes to end youth homelessness for LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color.” 

Research shows these two populations face a much higher risk of homelessness. Chapin Hall, a policy center at the University of Chicago, found in a 2017 national study that LGBTQ youth have a 120% higher risk of homelessness, and 2018 Department of Housing and Urban Development data showed 80% of homeless youth without a parent or guardian present are nonwhite or biracial. 

Chapin Hall reported 1 in 30 minors ages 13 to 17, and 1 in 10 young adults ages 18 to 25, experienced homelessness. Those numbers, Wagaman said, “flabbergasted” people not familiar with the issue and helped bring visibility to the scope of this issue for communities across the United States.

Overrepresented youth

Wagaman and Gattis said studies to count youth homelessness are complicated; while published figures are often considered to be underreporting the issue, the data that is available indicate an overrepresentation of LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color as the most affected populations. 

And Wagaman said local data is limited. “I’m hesitant to give counts because part of the issue is, we haven’t been able to do an adequate count. A lot of communities, I think, struggle with this, too, because the traditional way that folks who experience homelessness are counted does not reach young people. So they’re vastly undercounted.” 

If you can successfully support LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color, then everybody is going to benefit. Everyone is going to have access to a more just system, access to more of the things they need.

Gattis, a national expert with more than a decade of peer-reviewed publications on LGBTQ+ research, said that even though LGBTQ+ youth often are too fearful to present for services, the generally accepted percentage range for this population is disproportionate when compared to the general population.

“Sometimes you see estimates that it’s 20 to 40 percent,” he said. “But that 20 to 40 came from looking at a lot of convenient samples and then analyzing that and coming up with that number. The fact remains that the number is overrepresented among the entire population, if you accept that LGBTQ+ people are not 20 to 40 percent of the U.S. population. 

“We know from literature and anecdotally that LGBTQ+ youth, and particularly transgender youth, often avoid services. They avoid services out of fear of mistreatment, homophobia, transphobia, being assigned services for a gender that is not in line with how they identify. I’ve talked to youth who say, ‘we camp, we don’t go in for services.’ So they’re flying under the radar.” Advocates for Richmond Youth has found that this is happening in Richmond, too, Wagaman said. 

Youth of color represented 90% of people ages 18 to 24 who presented for traditional homeless services in Richmond in 2018, Wagaman said. “It’s clear from the data we do have, even in the absence of fully representative data, that there is a real disparity.”


To get involved


Wagaman said the best way to support the project is to join the Youth Housing Stability Coalition or donate items for the drop-in center through Commonwealth Catholic Charities. To learn more about youth homelessness in Richmond, visit Advocates for Richmond Youth

Developing solutions

Richmond does not have a youth shelter and also needs to address a range of youth housing options, both short- and long-term, as part of the solution, Wagaman said. One successful model is establishing host homes, in which people with extra bedrooms make them available to homeless youth through a structured program supported by a case manager. Two host home programs are already operational in Richmond, she said. 

Another solution is building acceptance among families with LGBTQ+ youth, as research indicates they often end up homeless after being rejected, Gattis said. “One thing that may be unique to LGBTQ youth is thinking about prevention. Instead of thinking about getting a host home or case management or them camping, let’s prevent youth from being kicked out of their homes.” 

Elaine Williams, a founding member of Advocates for Richmond Youth and a 2017 VCU social work graduate, said addressing the city’s racial history is an important part of the Grand Challenge project. ”We understand the history and know it’s not just with this issue of homelessness, but we know the role that race has played in the history of our community and city. This gives us an opportunity to change the narrative about what racial equity looks like, what LGBTQ+ equity looks like. And the beautiful thing about this is that those directly impacted individuals will be leading the charge. They get to set that narrative, and I’m excited to be a part of that.”

That youth-led approach is, in fact, a mandate for the award. Wagaman said 51% of the ride or die teams must be made up of young people directly affected by homelessness or housing instability. “We’ve tried to center young people’s experiences so they are the ones coming up with solutions and their voices are at the forefront. We’re excited that this opportunity will also reinforce that with some of our partners. That can be really exciting, but it can also be challenging for folks who are not used to listening or taking the lead from those who are directly impacted.”

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