Nearly 100 volunteers will hit the streets in Philadelphia Wednesday afternoon to count homeless youth as part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's annual homeless point-in-time counts, but experts in the field caution that the numbers likely won't tell the full story.
Despite the shift to beginning the point-in-time count of homeless youth up to age 24 at 3 p.m. instead of overnight in an attempt to engage more young people, staffers from Covenant House Pennsylvania, which provides shelter and services for homeless youth ages 18 to 21, said counts historically find only a small fraction of young people who are truly experiencing homelessness.
"It's still very likely to be an under-count ... It's an invisible population," Covenant House Pennsylvania Executive Director John Ducoff said. "[On average,] we serve 500 youth a year and turn away 400 more."
Ducoff said that during the weekend blizzard alone, seven homeless young people sought refuge at Covenant House's Germantown-based crisis shelter, and that in fiscal year 2015, the shelter served 512 homeless teens and young adults, but turned away another 249 kids, plus 127 homeless young mothers and their children and 43 homeless young women who were pregnant, due to lack of space.
"Obviously, it's the thing that keeps me up at night. It's the thing that we're working on," Ducoff said. "We have to do more."
Last year's point-in-time count of homeless youth located only 53 young people.
Based on a survey of Philadelphia high school students that revealed that 3,800 students had at one point been kicked out or run away from home, Ducoff estimated that in reality, there could be up to 5,000 or 6,000 homeless youth or young adults in Philadelphia at any given time. The youth count includes anyone up to age 24.
NBC10's Digital Team explored the widespread problem of youth homelessness last year in the Faces of Homeless Youth, a digital-exclusive in-depth report in which reporters Vince Lattanzio and Morgan Zalot spent months with more than a dozen formerly and currently homeless young people to tell their stories.
After NBC10's reporting, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) called for an increase in federal funding to combat youth homelessness, and Congress late last year approved a $1.1 trillion spending bill that includes $42.5 million in new money for homeless-youth initiatives.
Newly elected City Councilwoman Helen Gym is joining some 90 volunteers from several city organizations for Wednesday's count. Gym is chairing the new Committee on Children and Youth.
“Children and youth living with homelessness face enormous challenges. By participating in today’s youth count, I am trying help the city to better understand the issues these young people face and amplify their voices," Gym said. "Their firsthand perspective will also prove invaluable in building policies that respond to the actual needs of youth experiencing homelessness.”
The youth count takes place ahead of Wednesday night's overnight point-in-time count of homeless adults -- an annual count mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that takes place across the country every January.
The nationwide homeless youth count last January found nearly 200,000 people up to age 24 homeless across America.
Read more in NBC10's Faces of Homeless Youth -- and learn how you can help -- here.