Home for the holidays. For many people that’s a happy phrase, just as for many Americans the last few weeks included welcomed vacations and celebrations – a time of plenty, gratitude, and family that marked the joyous holiday season. But “home for the holidays” is an empty promise for thousands of young people who didn’t have a place at anyone’s holiday tables and have little hope for a better 2018. Instead they move into the new year trying to survive the bitter temperatures and with still nowhere to call home.
Too often they are forgotten in the cold and the shadows. The new report Missed Opportunities from Voices of Youth Count, an initiative of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, is the first in a series aimed at shining a spotlight on the quiet but enormous crisis of unaccompanied youth homelessness in America. It notes one in 10 young adults 18-25 years old – 3.5 million – and at least one in 30 teenagers 13-17 years old – 700,000 – experienced some form of homelessness in a recent year. It opens with Natalie’s story:
“At age 14 in a small town in Washington State, Natalie’s experience with homelessness began. Natalie’s dad left her family, and her mom fell into depression and started using methamphetamines. ‘[I]f she wasn’t drunk or high, she was gone’ . . . For the next six months, Natalie cared for her four younger siblings. She started to miss school and ultimately dropped out. The stress of her circumstance mounted. Through friends, she encountered meth, a drug that had become tragically common in her community. She started using. This only added to conflict with her mom, and, after a fight with her mom’s new boyfriend, Natalie was kicked out.
“Natalie then cycled between couch surfing and trap houses, where illegal drugs are sold. She exchanged sex with an older man so that she could ‘have a roof over [her] head.’ Natalie traveled to other cities for housing and informal support. By 17, when chemical dependency had taken a strong hold, she stayed for extended periods in the shed of someone she knew. Natalie found herself regularly returning to juvenile detention – where she says she was grateful for a bed to sleep in and respites of safety. . . .”
Natalie is not alone. Missed Opportunities highlights results from a national survey that captured youth homelessness broadly, including couch surfing, sleeping on the streets, in cars, and in shelters. There is constant movement. The survey found that one half of the older group and one quarter of the younger group involved couch surfing only and half of those who experienced homelessness faced it for the first time.
In addition to documenting how shockingly widespread youth homelessness is, the report highlights some specifics: Rates are similar in rural and urban areas. Black youths had an 83 percent higher risk and Latino youths a 33 percent higher risk of being homeless than youths of other races. Poor youths, LGBT youths, unmarried young parents, and youths with less than a high school diploma or GED are all at especially high risk. It notes: “Adolescence and young adulthood represent a key developmental window. Every day of housing instability and associated stress represents a missed opportunity to support healthy development and transitions to productive adulthood.” Missed Opportunities adds, “While the deprivation of housing stability was the common thread in Voices of Youth Count research, the stories of youth homelessness – and the opportunities for intervention – rarely centered on housing alone.”
Chapin Hall’s findings reinforce a similar message that came out of Sao Paulo, Brazil in November at the American Bar Association’s International Summit on the Legal Rights of Street-Connected Children and Youth, a conference focused on the global need to ensure legal rights and human rights for children and youth who spend time living on the streets, including those in the U.S. Around the world homeless youths are at high risk of hunger, poor health outcomes, physical violence, rape, and sexual exploitation. The dangers are real, but so is the opportunity for positive intervention if we are willing to act.
This crisis requires action by the United Nations but also by our United States Congress, state legislatures, and county social services. Missed Opportunities’ key recommendations include building prevention efforts where youths likely to experience homelessness are already in care, especially the child welfare, juvenile justice, and education systems. It recommends funding housing interventions, services, and prevention efforts on a scale with youth homelessness. Right now the Department of Health and Human Services’ Runaway and Homeless Youth Act program offers entry into transitional housing to only about 3,000 youths a year, a number far below the overwhelming need. And the challenges will increase. The new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed by Republican majorities in Congress and the indefensibly huge deficit it will create to help billionaires and corporations are likely to rip apart the still inadequate safety net for babies, children and youths left behind and impose deep cuts in funds allocated to homeless youths and housing programs, health, social services and education programs in the future. It is profoundly cruel to turn our back on these youths and so many others in dire need.
Our most vulnerable young people deserve so much more in our rich nation. I hope everyone will realize the opportunity to improve the odds for unaccompanied homeless youths by being that neighbor who shows interest and kindness to teenagers, volunteering as a mentor or tutor, ensuring local schools and clinics are reaching out to homeless youths, and organizing and speaking up locally to ensure adequate levels of services to meet youth needs in small towns and large cities. If the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs could make significant strides in the past decade to ameliorate veteran homelessness, we can do the same for youths. As we end the season where many in America focused on the call in all major faith traditions to give and share, what better time could there be to make a warm home a priority and a plan for the future for all these young people. It will take all of us – as individuals, communities, and governments -- to prepare these young people, our next generation, for successful futures and a more successful nation.