Nobody knows how many young people are homeless in the United States. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) last year pegged the number of unaccompanied homeless youth at 45,000, but that’s widely acknowledged to be an undercount. The Department of Education says it’s more like 90,000, based on the number of students who self-identified as homeless during the 2013-2014 school year. Because there’s no universal definition for “youth” or “homelessness,” the actual number is anybody’s guess. 

This isn’t a new issue. Seven years ago, Congress called for periodic national estimates of runaway and homeless youth between the ages of 13 and 26. The first count should have occurred in 2010. In fact, the Obama administration requested funding for a national count, but Congress never appropriated the money. 

The lack of data is a huge problem, says Bryan Samuels, who served as the commissioner of Children, Youth and Families under President Obama. “We weren’t in a position to judge whether the federal government programs [on youth homelessness] were working.”

Information on homeless veterans and adults has helped the federal government and its local partners establish realistic reduction goals. Several cities have reduced homelessness among those populations, and some localities, including Houston and Salt Lake City, have claimed victory in eliminating chronic veteran homelessness. But the problem among youths remains a big question mark. “We need a baseline,” says Mary Cunningham, who researches homelessness at the Urban Institute. “We still need a lot more information before we can really progress.” 

To set that baseline, Samuels, now the director of Chapin Hall, an applied research center at the University of Chicago, is raising private funds -- more than $2.6 million so far -- to conduct a two-year count of youth homelessness in 25 communities. The effort launched in July; final results won’t be available until 2017. 

Why is it so hard to get a good count of youth homelessness? For one thing, HUD’s estimate depends heavily on the number of people using emergency shelters during winter months. That makes sense for adults, but younger people are more likely to steer clear of shelters. Many youths become homeless because they’re trying to avoid the police or the foster care system. They may not want to raise a red flag by self-identifying as homeless. 

So researchers at Chapin Hall are rethinking the methodology. Their counts will take place in warmer months. They’ll consider new locations, such as malls and transit stations, and they may include counts during the day and night. They’ll cross-reference data from child welfare agencies, human services departments and school districts. They’ll also conduct in-depth interviews to understand why young people become homeless and what services they need. 

The goal is to get much more than an accurate census of the nation’s homeless youth. “If we just ended up with a count, then everybody funding this initiative would be disappointed,” Samuels says. The final report will also include promising and proven interventions that can help policymakers reduce youth homelessness.