WASHINGTON — When Dani Seltzer is invited to talk to schoolchildren or chats with people in her Arlington, Virginia, community about what homelessness looks like, she says the image in people’s minds at the start of her talks is usually an adult man or woman asking for money on street corners. 

Rarely do they picture a young person in their late teens or 20s — a member of Generation Z — couch surfing in friends’ or families’ homes or without a place to stay, never having a place to call home. 

As the board chair of Borromeo Housing, Inc., which supports young homeless mothers, Seltzer said that many young people who are homeless are stigmatized as having done something to cause their homelessness or as just “bad kids,” which makes them feel discarded and invisible.

One in 10 young adults aged 18-25 experience homelessness, according to a 2017 University of Chicago study. The Government Accountability Office and other experts say homeless young people are also harder to track in federal reporting than other people experiencing homelessness because they are undercounted in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s point-in-time count — the yearly estimate of how many people are experiencing homelessness on a single night.

The GAO and local groups that provide housing say the federal response to homelessness often gives lower priority to young adults who are homeless compared with other groups — such as those who have been homeless for longer periods of time or those with disabilities. 

In a report released this month, the GAO recommended that HUD and the Department of Health and Human Services provide more guidance to local providers on how to help young people who are homeless. 

According to the report, HHS uses a broad definition of youth homelessness, including staying with friends or at motels, while HUD’s definition is narrower, excluding those situations in many cases. Because of that, many find navigating which benefits are available to different types of people to be challenging, said Andy Pauline, assistant director of the GAO’s financial markets and community investment team.

He recommended federal agencies work on an interactive tool to help housing and service providers for homeless people better understand the definitions.

Sean Read, chief program officer for the Washington housing service provider Friendship Place, said there should be a uniform definition of homelessness between HUD and HHS. 

“Sometimes there are individuals that are trying to navigate resources from both sides, and they may qualify for one but not the other,” Read said. “Sometimes the ability to access a resource or program on the other side can really lend to their long-term stability. Sometimes it’s the key.”

According to a HUD official, the agency has no plans to alter its definition. Instead of expanding who is eligible for HUD programs, the official said the solution is to increase funding for the programs. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act is one way of doing so, he said. 

HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Read added that young people have unique needs. While the federal government has one centralized system for individuals seeking housing resources, Washington has separate systems to accommodate different demographics, including youth, veterans, single adults and families.

While Read said Washington’s system could be used as a model for replication on the federal level, the HUD official said the agency has seen the greatest success on a national scale when processes and service providers are coordinated, not separated or fragmented.

Triina Van, homeless services coordinator for the Arlington County Department of Human Services in Virginia, also said having separate systems for different demographic groups could result in pitting the groups against one another for resources.

She added that there is a difference in philosophy in serving young homeless people. Some organizations focus on temporary or transitional housing, whereas others have a “housing first” approach to move homeless individuals into permanent housing quickly, she said. 

“Without necessarily saying one is right or wrong, there’s a tension there,” she said.

Van said that all of Arlington County’s homeless nonprofit partners have direct relationships with the faith community, whether through donations, in-kind contributions or volunteers.

Seltzer said that is true at Borromeo Housing, Inc. as it aims to help young mothers by providing housing to help them become successful on their own and disrupt the cycle of dependency on shelters or other subsidized housing. 

“In the values that we lead with and guide by, I think faith is ever-present,” she said.

“I can put a roof over your head today, or I can show you a way that you can put a roof over your head for the rest of your life and create a different mindset, lifestyle, expectation, for not only yourself but for your children so that your children are never part of that ongoing cycle,” she said.

While Borromeo Housing is privately funded, many of its volunteers and donors feel called by their faith to serve. 

“The programs that support (young adults experiencing homelessness) have a much bigger charge than to just put a roof over their heads. They need people that are willing to say, ‘I see you, I believe in you, I care about you and I expect more from you,’” she said.