What We Know — and Don’t — About Homeless Youth

November 29, 2012

This is the tail end of Homeless Youth Awareness Month, established by Congress in 2007 to make us recognize that we’ve got a lot of young people out in the world on their own who don’t have a safe, stable place to live.

Also to express support for programs to prevent youth homelessness and “provide aid where prevention fails” — easier than passing bills that provide support, I suppose.

Perhaps we’re more aware of homeless youth now. At least, they’ve gotten their own niche in more policy agendas.

Yet we don’t know as much about them as we should. And aren’t doing as much as we should — in part because of what we don’t know, though we know enough to be doing more than we are.

Here then is a brief overview of what we know — and don’t.

How Many Homeless Youth Are There?

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that some 1.7 million children become homeless each year, not including those who are with newly-homeless parents. About 400,000 of them remain homeless for more than a week.

But, as NAEH says, these figures are outdated. And the source they’re based on doesn’t include youth who’ve been homeless more than a year or homeless youth in the 18-24 age range.

For these young adults, we have some data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, based on what homeless assistance grant recipients report to its information system.

NAEH estimates that there are some 28,000 of them who are homeless for a long period of time or recurrently. The data are only for young adults who seek help from the HUD-funded programs, however.

No comparable data for youth who are living on the streets, “couch surfing” in homes of friends or relatives or living with someone else who’s befriended them — all too often to exploit them sexually.

Who Are These Homeless Youth?

So far as we know (not much), runaways represent a large percent of homeless youth. But they’re generally not leaving home to enjoy a freewheeling lifestyle, as some in the 1960s did.

Many are fleeing physical and/or sexual abuse. Some are responding to constant fighting or egregious neglect, often related to their parents’ excessive drinking or drug use — a source of the physical abuse also.

Substance abuse by youth themselves also enters into the picture — either that alone or in combination with the resulting (or causal) problems in school.

An unusual high percent of homeless youth are LGTB — 40% according to a recent study. This is at least four times the estimated number of LGTB youth in the population as a whole.

Nearly half of them run away because they fear parental rejection. Almost as many actually experience it by getting kicked out.

The same two factors reportedly account for some portion of homelessness among pregnant teenagers and new mothers.

And then we’ve got youth who’ve “aged out” of foster care and find themselves in the world alone without the resources to pay rent — and often without the education and/or training to get a job that will make that possible.

The same is true for youth who’ve been released from the protective custody of the juvenile justice system.

There are about 100,000 of them a year. And they’re often discharged with no support plan to help them cope with the many challenges they face — finding a safe, stable housing situation among them.

Finally, some youth strike out on their own because their families are homeless or otherwise in dire financial straits.

Or they don’t choose independence, but instead have been separated from their parents by policies that ban teenagers from family shelters.

Needless to say (I hope), these multifarious factors aren’t mutually exclusive.

What Are We Doing?

We’ve got a number of local programs that specialize in services for homeless youth, but nationwide they serve only 50,000 or so a year.

The top priority approach, especially for those under 18, is reunification with their parents through counseling that resolves conflicts and/or other services that go at underlying causes.

But returning youth to the nest isn’t always best for them — or even safe.

Nonprofits offer a range of services to help homeless youth make it on their own, e.g., counseling, education and training programs or links to these.

Meanwhile, these youth need a roof over their heads. And shelters for adults may be as risky for them as the streets.

Both federal and local funds support several types of housing specifically for youth, but there’s a large unmet need.

How large is one of those things we apparently don’t know, but we have some fragmentary indications.

For example, a 2007 survey in New York City produced an estimate of 3,800 homeless youth on any given night. The city now has emergency shelter beds for only 250 of them.

Here in the District of Columbia, the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates ballparks the number of homeless youth at about 7,350 a year.

We’ve got only 216 beds for them — and just eight specifically for LGTB youth.

We know more than enough to know that’s not enough, don’t we?