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Homeless Youth Focus of $200,000 Grant Award from Aetna Foundation to Community Health Center, Inc.

Community Health Center, Inc. (CHC) is pleased to announce it has received $200,000 from the Aetna Foundation for a policy-oriented research project focused on youth homelessness.  Across the U.S., homelessness impacts 4.2 million youth ages 13-25, and is a major public health challenge, made all the more dire during the COVID-19 crisis. The Aetna award will support a twelve-month study by Community Health Center, Inc. and its Weitzman Institute, examining factors contributing to youth homelessness through community-based participatory research.

Recent national reports of homelessness show that one in 10 young adults ages 18-25, and at least one in 30 adolescents ages 13-17, experience some form of homelessness unaccompanied by a parent or guardian over the course of a year. Certain groups are disproportionately affected, including Black and Latinx, LGBT, youth who do not complete high school, and youth who are parents. Homeless youth are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, facing issues such as consistent access to running water needed for hand washing and hygiene. Moreover, the role of racial/ethnic disparities during the pandemic adds another layer of complexity for youth of color as emerging data from the CDC suggests that communities of color are experiencing a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 related illness and death.

The project will engage youth in examining the web of individual, familial, communal, and systemic factors contributing to youth homelessness through PhotoVoice, community-based, participatory research. Participants will be provided with and trained on the use of a digital camera and instructed to focus on capturing scenes in their community that depict the important circumstances addressing or contributing to youth homelessness, particularly in the context of the pandemic. Additional youth-led multi-media activities, including photo exhibits, podcasts and short videos will be developed to propose youth-driven solutions and recommendations to policymakers, practitioners and researchers.

The project also will seek to understand barriers in addressing the health and health-related social needs of youth through interviews with community leaders from organizations serving youth. CHC’s longstanding partnerships with groups such as the Coalition for New Britain’s Youth has led to a clear understanding that for many homeless youth, school is a safe space, offering education as an escape from homelessness, as well as food and health care. With schools closed during the pandemic, the research will explore how COVID-19 has impacted service delivery and the capacity of youth service organizations to meet the current needs of youth experiencing homelessness.

“The double pandemic of COVID-19 and ongoing structural racism has both exacerbated and brought greater attention to the health and social challenges facing homeless youth, particularly youth of color,” according to project Principal Investigator, April Joy Damian, PhD, MSc, Associate Director, Weitzman Institute.  “Through this project, homeless youth of color serve as true leaders and stakeholders alongside CHC, Weitzman, and its community-based partners in informing what the new normal should look like, thereby effectively moving the needle on health and social inequities.”

“The Aetna Foundation, a philanthropic affiliate of CVS Health, is dedicated to helping people on their path to better health – with a particular emphasis on those left most vulnerable in our communities as a result of COVID-19 and other health disparities,” said Eileen Howard Boone, President of the Aetna Foundation.  “We are proud to support this work with Community Health Center, Inc. and the Weitzman Institute, in our home state of Connecticut, to further our commitment to address inequality and help those in greatest need.”

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