Largest Study of Homeless Young Adults: 10 Percent Lack Shelter Each Year

11/15/2017 12:17 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2017
photo by Ben Norman

Researchers released their findings this morning from the most comprehensive study ever undertaken on the prevalence of homelessness among youth in America. According to the new report from the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, one out of every ten young people ages 18 to 25 experiences homelessness in a year. That’s 3.5 million young people annually, enough to fill the entire city of Chicago, our nation’s third largest city, or Houston, our fourth largest.

If this news doesn’t make your blood boil, check your pulse.

For younger and more vulnerable kids, the figures aren’t much better – 1 out of every 30 kids aged 13 to 17 find themselves without a home in the course of a year. That’s 700,000 adolescents, enough to fill 800 high schools, facing the perils of street life alone.

Chapin Hall conducted its interviews in 22 communities, including at several of our Covenant House sites in California, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. Wherever I go for Covenant House, I see them, kids who had one stroke of bad luck, then the house of cards collapsed, leaving them to face homelessness alone. Kids who don’t have foster parents anymore, after their 18th birthday. Kids whose folks kicked them out of the house for being pregnant, or gay, or transgender. College kids, who make up an unfathomable 29 percent of homeless young adults. Kids whose parents died, or went to jail, or overdosed, or couldn’t or wouldn’t parent them. Homelessness is the least interesting thing about our kids. They are artists and athletes, students and staff, rappers and writers, comedians and co-workers. They're our sons and daughters, brimming with hope. Homeless is where they are. Not who they are.

Then there are the young people I don’t see, the ones in small towns and rural areas. There, the prevalence of youth homelessness is actually slightly higher, though services like shelters and case managers are much harder to find.

I’m struck by the scope of the problem we are tackling. Each year Covenant House reaches 80,000 young people who face homelessness and trafficking, most of them ages 16 to 21, in 31 cities across six countries. We provide 10,000 kids each year with a warm bed, food, health services, and case managers, and, most important of all, unconditional love and respect. Others use our non-residential drop-in programs or public education and homelessness prevention programs.

Eighty thousand is a huge number, but it’s dwarfed by the 3.5 million young people ages 18-25 and 700,000 adolescent minors Chapin Hall found to be experiencing homelessness each year.

But with half of the youth interviewed by Chapin Hall reporting being homeless for more than a year, there are far too many who never receive the services they need. As the report notes,

Adolescence and young adulthood represent a key developmental window. Every day of housing instability and the associated stress represents a missed opportunity to support healthy development and transitions to productive adulthood.

The study fixes a needed spotlight on a very hard-to-count group of young people – homeless youth try to blend in with their peers who have homes, as no teen likes to stick out as different, but also because pimps, drug dealers, and gangs seek out kids who appear alone in the world, to exploit them. Half of the older cohort was couch-surfing and extra hard to find, but still in desperate need – half of them report feeling unsafe while moving from one friend or relative’s house to another.

The study looked at a year of homelessness, not just one day or week as used in the federal Point in Time study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It counted more than the federal Department of Education can, as it found kids who were out of school. Those young people lacking a high school diploma or GED have a 3.5 times higher likelihood of experiencing homelessness than their peers who completed high school, according to the report.

Other subgroups of kids face higher risks – young unmarried parents, (200 percent higher risk), lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids (120 percent higher) and African Americans (83 percent higher). Clearly, social service providers need to tailor our services to those kids, to help them find the bright futures they deserve.

On Thursday night, more than 2,500 of us will sleep outside for one night as part of Sleep Out America to raise awareness and funds to end youth homelessness. It’s a burgeoning national movement, in every one of the 50 states from coast to coast. With millions of kids facing homelessness, the stakes could not be higher. These youth are ours, yours and mine, and it’s our responsibility to be for them the bridge from homelessness to hope.

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