Fending for Themselves: Impact of Youth Homelessness
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Homeless and Housing Resource Network contributing writer Kevin Lilly addresses the unique challenges faced by of young people who experience homelessness, and includes must-see video clips for providers serving homeless youth.
On the streets of cities and towns across the United States, many young people find themselves in a position where they are homeless and left to fend for themselves. These young people, numbering nearly 1.7 million, are under the age of 18 and they lack parental, foster, or institutional care (Finkelhor et al., 2002). This number is a conservative estimate because it does not include young adults who are aged 18-24. Additionally, there are many young people who do not seek help, cannot be tracked or disappear.
There is no one reason for why young people are homeless. Their stories and situations vary from person to person. Some are homeless because they ran away from an abusive household, relationship, or foster home (National Coalition for the Homeless 2007). Some are homeless because despite employment cannot afford rent and ended up living on the street. There are some who were kicked out of their homes after they come out to their families as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, or Questioning (LGBTQ). While their personal stories are different, the fact remains that these are still young people on the street who need help. As such, providers should be aware of the challenges faced by young people experiencing homelessness.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (CDC, 2011) reports that homeless youth have a higher risk of being in a gang, using heroin, feeling depressed, attempting suicide, being victims of sexual assault than their housed counter parts (CDC, 2011). According to Safe Horizon (2013), “Young people living on the streets are highly likely to be engaged in substance abuse (approximately 75%), as a means to self-medicate to deal with traumatic experiences and abuse they face while trying to survive” This data reveals both the severity and the complexity of youth homelessness.
School can also be a challenge for many homeless youth. For example for a homeless student who the night before was rushing to get across town to get to a shelter before all the beds are full, getting to class the next day and staying awake during class would be a challenge. Often homeless youth change schools so frequently that it impacts their ability to achieve a quality education. This has long-lasting affects for a homeless young person who faces disruptions to their education (Institute on Children and Poverty, 2008).
School breaks for many homeless youth are a period of uncertainty and stress. For some youth, school is a place to go for a few hours that is sure to be more peaceful than the streets, but during school breaks, youth can be put in a very tough situation. For some what should be a break of leisure quickly becomes one of stress and fear. While many of their classmates are home for school breaks, many homeless youth are looking for a safe place to sleep, childcare, employment, and a meal.
Young people experiencing homelessness also face challenges while access housing services. Youth providing anonymous testimony during a legislative hearing expressed concerns over adult shelters (MCH, 2013). They reported avoiding going to adult shelters because they contain the many vices homeless youth try to avoid: drugs, alcohol, violence, fighting, and even sexual assault (MCH, 2013). Some homeless young people ran away to flee such problems, and they are reluctant to put themselves in a situation where they would be exposed to it again (MCH, 2103).
Additionally, homeless youth often struggle to secure adequate employment. Homeless youth are young people with a very limited education. They also find it difficult to access to showers, hygiene products, and interview attire. When they are successful in getting jobs, those positions often pay minimum wage, which is not a living wage for many (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2007). Other youth may find unreported employment (or “under the table” work) and some may resort to illegal activities to survive (Karabanow, 2004).
Given these challenges faced by homeless youth, it is important for providers to understand the unique needs of these young people. The following practical and engaging videos provides specific guidance for providers working with homeless youth:
• California Homeless Youth Project: Voices from the Street
Short video interviews with young people who have experienced homelessness or housing instability: http://cahomelessyouth.library.ca.gov/Videos/All_Videos/voices02.html
• Larkin Street Stories: The Homeless LGBT Experience (Episode 1)
This video was provides advice for providers working with youth who identify as LGBTQ: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48mC89f6PgA
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Available at: www.cdc.gov/yrbs.
Finkelhor, D., Hotaling, G., and Sedlak, A. 1990. Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children in America. First Report: Numbers and Characteristics National Incidence Studies. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Institute for Children and Poverty. (1999). National data on family homelessness. Retrieved from http://www.icpny.org/PDF/reports/AccesstoSuccess.pdf?Submit1=Free+Download.
Karabanow (2004). Being young and homeless: Understanding how youth enter and exit street life. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing Inc.
Massachusetts Sate Legislature’s Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. “Public Hearing on House Bill # 135, The Unaccompanied Youth Homelessness Bill” (Date: 7/16/13.)
National Coalition for the Homeless (2007). NCH Fact Sheet #13: Homeless Youth. Retrieved from http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/facts/youth.pdf
Safe Horizon (2013). Streetwork: Homeless youth facts. Retrieved from: http://www.safehorizon.org/index/what-we-do-2/helping-youth-14/streetwork-homeless-youth-facts-220.html
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