Loving Our Kids with a Little Help From the Numbers
At first glance, I thought Tom and David Chivers’ book on understanding numbers and stats in the news looked like a dry read. I checked it out of the library, fully expecting to return it when I was done and not read it again. However, How to Read Numbers, A Guide to Stats in the News (and Knowing When to Trust Them), had me hooked in the introduction! I found this book insightful, valuable, and even humorous! I’ve been thinking about the content since I opened it and last week, I ordered my own copy to keep on my shelf with other good reads I plan to pursue in the future.
The focus of the book is on how numbers are used in the media and how they can give misleading impressions. Chivers and Chivers point out that we need to be aware that often statistics represent real people or things that matter to people and therefore understanding how to present and read the numbers is a valuable skill. What numbers are misrepresented? What numbers can be trusted? Chivers and Chivers offer readers strong tools to use in decision making, as individuals and as a society.
In my work, I desire to steer clear of presenting “the numbers,” because in working with youth experiencing homelessness, we want to highlight the importance of each person, not reduce them to a number. However, funders and supporters want to know our numbers. So, we compile the numbers and, in many ways, this process has provided integral data in strengthening our program and developing increasingly meaningful experiences for the students we serve.
Our program provides long-term housing for youth not able to live with their parents and not in the foster system, so that they can focus on school, graduate, and pursue their goals for college or career. We take referrals through the school districts and recruit volunteer home providers from the community to provide housing. When we began our program in 2010, we provided housing for five young people. The following year we provided housing for ten young people. This seemed like healthy progress to us. However, as we began applying for grants, we realized that we needed to more clearly communicate our work and student progress.
We interviewed our various non-profit partners in the area to learn from them. There was one emergency youth shelter in our county and they provided housing for six youth at a time. Over the course of a year, they provided housing for nearly 60 teenagers. This seemed like a lot compared to our ten! When we started to delve into the numbers, we realized a valuable fact. Youth at the emergency shelter could stay a maximum of sixty days. At that rate, the shelter could provide approximately 3,600 nights of housing. We ran the numbers on our program. Youth stayed in housing on average one or more years. In serving ten students, we provided 365 nights of housing times ten, which equaled 3,650. Our numbers were actually comparable to the shelter services. Upon discovering this, we changed the way we wrote our grants and delivered our information to supporters, to more accurately reflect the support students received through housing with a long-term home provider. We even added in the number of meals received in a year. Ten students in housing for one year, received the opportunity to have three meals a day, for a total of 10,950 meals.
In our situation, looking closely at the numbers allowed us to more accurately present our work, more carefully serve students, and more strategically develop an effective program. We did similar studies on our graduation rates, the numbers of students needing housing in each school district, and the number of students with whom we worked, but did not house. We also used numbers to communicate the ways in which youth homelessness creates a pipeline to adult homelessness. It makes statistical and ethical sense to commit time and money to walking youth out of homelessness.
This approach to numbers has been invaluable to our knowledge base and has informed not only our grantors, but our team, thus allowing us to be an effective partner in the continuum of youth housing services. Highlighting the numbers has allowed us to speak to the sobering fact that young individuals, full of potential and wanting to realize their dreams, are trying to navigate life by themselves and no youth should be walking through their teen years alone. There is much work to do and we, as community members and leaders, can attentively accompany each youth, so that they can choose healthy directions for their lives and that of their future generations. The facts are in the numbers, and upon close examination, these numbers allow us to more deeply invest in each and every youth.
 Tom Chivers and David Chivers, How to Read Numbers, A Guide to Statistics in the News (and Knowing When to Trust Them) (London, UK: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2021), 2.
 Chivers, 2-3.
 Chivers, 4.
 I believe strongly in the need for an emergency shelter in our community. The collaborative work within the continuum of services, short-term through long-term, is invaluable. There is no need to compete with each other, but simply a need for each organization to accurately describe their work in order to receive the funding needed to operate at full capacity.
 Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago in, https://schoolhouseconnection.org/groundbreaking-research-on-youth-homelessness-youth-without-a-high-school-degree-young-parents-and-low-income-at-highest-risk/, November 14, 2017.
12 responses to “Loving Our Kids with a Little Help From the Numbers”
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What you have written is compelling.
From what you shared, this looks like a good article:
Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America.
I am so curious how youth homelessness becomes a pipeline to adult homelessness? I would be interested in knowing the numbers 🙂
I am glad numbers have been a reason for people to grant money to helping teens who are homeless
You are about a great work!
Thanks for your comments on my blog. Chapin Hall does some great research on homelessness, especially youth homelessness. Many people who experience homelessness as an adult experienced homelessness as youth. There are many reasons for this, but some of those reasons are that youth experiencing homelessness have a lower high school graduation rate than youth with stable homes, and without a high school diploma, it is more difficult to get a job with a stable wage to provide for one’s needs. Also, one night of sleeping on the streets for a youth increases their risk of chronic homelessness, which can extend into adulthood. This is because when a youth has to sleep on the streets, their brain almost always moves into survival mode (fight, flight, freeze). It is is difficult for them to transition to a calm, rational state of mind after spending time on the streets. Their experience on the streets can spiral into a long list of traumatic events that contribute to continued homelessness. There are many reasons as to why investing in reducing youth homelessness will not only give youth a better chance to live a full life, but will also reduce the numbers of adults experiencing homelessness. If we can give youth a chance to stabilize their lives at a young age, fewer of them will experience homelessness as adults. Thanks for being interested! I could talk quite a lot on this topic, so always glad to continue the conversation.
I appreciated hearing more from you.
Wow. This is sombering. I worked with a client recently-male, early 30’s, 3 children and no diploma from high school. It was interesting for me to hear how he was leaning towards moving into an unfavorable living condition and not prioritizing securing diploma by going to the adult school for 3 days. I felt like my hands were tied but I was happy that he was willing to do some problem solving with me. I would love to hear your thoughts on the idea of learned helplessness. When do you see youth catapulting out of the situation of homelessness if ever? When do you see the brakes on the “spiral down” ? I have found that internal and external resources available to a person are huge factors for someone to make a change.
This is definitely an interesting conversation! We have to continue it, even if offline. It seems that often if children have experienced scarcity, they grow up to be adults that prioritize securing resources above any other opportunities. Perhaps, your client wants to secure housing for his family first, because the effects of losing housing would be so high? Learned helplessness is an interesting concept. Most of the students we work with are dedicated to their education and once they secure their housing and settle down, they can move out of a survival mindset and begin exploring their internal and external resources that help them move forward into healthier living. Some would say that makes a case for stabilizing housing and food first, and then empowering people to pursue their specific gifts and potential later. We work with a unique niche of kids. Few of them return to homelessness, but almost all of them have had a chance to build lasting relationships with healthy people, experience some success in graduating, and witness a variety of ways to establish workable living routines. Let’s keep talking. So much to learn for all of us.
Your blog was fascinating. I was intrigued by your organization’s use of numbers in order to get better grant money. That is simply fabulous! It is all in the wording and presentation. It is a blessing that you are able to help so many young people. May the Lord continue to anoint the work that you do, and may the youth that journey through your program find success in life as a result.
Thank you so much, Tonette, for your comments. It is truly an honor to journey with these youth through their high school years. I know you, too, understand the value of investing in children and youth and their stability and education. It can make such a difference in their lives and the lives of their future generations. I’m thankful for the opportunity to work with a team doing this work.
Would you mind reminding me the name of the organization you serve with? I am eager to learn more about the work you all do!
I am grateful you pointed out the tension of the reductionistic thinking of only caring about the numbers, but also recognizing that behind every number is a story. It is like with measuring numbers for churches: when we focus on attendance and giving only, we are missing the bigger picture. Also, some churches may be on the up with giving and attendance, but have a deeply unhealthy staff culture.
Thanks for your comments. I work for Second Home, which is a program of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. Lisa Mentesana, who works at the Beaverton Resource Center on your campus, actually had the brainstorm for the program 12 years ago. The program started in Beaverton and now has expanded throughout Washington, Clackamas, East Multnomah, and Lincoln Counties.
Yes, you make such a good point about the value of individuals behind each number. That is so interesting, isn’t it, how churches can focus on numbers in ways that make them look impressive from the outside, but may be struggling on the inside. I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts!
Jenny – Thank you for this thought-provoking article. You did an excellent job showing how numbers ARE important, but don’t tell the whole story. As an organizational leader, it’s so important to see both the big picture and have a good grasp of the details and key metrics. Your post proved that you are doing both excellently. As a communication professional, I’m curious if you publish and annual report each year and if you included stories as well as facts and figures in it? If not, it might be something worthwhile for both the organization and your benefactors. I’d be happy to show you some examples of annual reports that do both well.
Thank you so much for your thoughts and comments. I appreciate your communication knowledge and experience! Yes, I would love to see some examples of annual reports that you think do a good job of presenting the stories and the numbers accurately. Thank you!
Our larger organization, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, does an annual report and our program information is included in that. Our program is called Second Home and we are one of six programs of our larger organization. We recently completed our second three-year programmatic strategic plan for Second Home, which we send to our funders and supporters. We have a working version of that plan which is quite detailed, which our team uses. We have a shortened version of our plan, with graphics, which we send out to others. I would value your feedback on any of the above! Thanks so much, Laura.
Taking us through the numbers process your organization has employed was an excellent example of how it should be done – with integrity, simplicity, and most of all godly compassion.
I’ve witnessed a few community non-profits lose their people focus once they started applying for grants and having to show real numbers and results.
Kudos to you and your team for keeping your eye on the prize – the young people you serve.
Audrey, Thank you so much for your comments and encouragement. It can be so hard to stay focused on the mission when we pursue funding from a variety of funders. I find that some of the private grantors are a little more flexible than the government funders. I have been encouraged lately that HUD funding, specifically through their youth funding streams, has been open to new and innovative ways of spending and accounting for money. I am so appreciative of people willing to change the “ways we have always done things” in order to better serve the populations needing support. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts!