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Homeless Youth Awareness Month: Debunking Myths

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Facts About Homeless Youth in the United States

 November is Homeless Youth Awareness Month. We’re going to share facts and statistics throughout the month about homelessness, homeless families, and homeless youth. We’ll start this effort by acknowledging that homelessness is a problem we all need to address together. Local, state, and federal agencies, in cooperation with private philanthropic organizations and private citizens, can take steps to help keep individuals, families, and children off the streets. Supporting homeless shelters, volunteering time, and donating during food and clothing drives are important. But those efforts come after people are already homeless.

What’s needed are large-scale, cooperative initiatives to stop homelessness – particularly youth homelessness – before it starts.

And the first step toward organizing those initiatives is awareness. Awareness means answering basic questions such as:

How many homeless youth are there in the United States?

Why are they homeless?

Once we give you the statistics, we can start debunking some of the common myths around homeless youth. But there’s a problem: acquiring accurate figures on the number of homeless youth is challenging. Hurdles to precision revolve mostly around reporting. The stigma attached to homelessness means many people who are homeless do not want to admit to being homeless. When collecting data on youth, which often happens through schools, it’s not surprising that kids don’t want to share the fact that they spent the previous night at a shelter, sleeping a car with their mother, temporarily couch surfing with a friend of the family, or worse – sleeping outdoors.

Homeless Youth: Facts and Figures

Despite the challenges, there is reliable data available from three sources: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTRS), The National Runaway Safeline (NRS), and The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Here are the key statistics from NCTRS and NRS:

  • Over 1.5 million youth (defined as children under the age of 18) experience homelessness for at least one night of the year.
  • 550,000 youth experience periods of homelessness lasting one week or more.

In their December, 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, HUD included what’s called a Point-In-Time (PIT) analysis, an assessment designed to estimate the number of homeless people on one specific night. They hoped that a snapshot of one night might offer a realistic estimate of the number of homeless people throughout the year.

On a single night in January, 2017, they found:
  • 553,742 people in the U.S. were homeless.
    • 114, 829 of those were youth under the age of 18.
      • 103,289 of those youth spent the night in a homeless shelter.
      • 11,540 of those youth spent the night elsewhere.
    • 57,971 families with children were homeless.
    • 36, 010 people age 18-24 were homeless
    • 4,789 were unaccompanied youth
      • 2,122 spent the night in a homeless shelter
      • 2,667 of them spent the night elsewhere.

That’s the official government data. On a single night during one of the coldest months of the year, over half a million people were homeless. Over fifty thousand families with kids were homeless. Close to five thousand children under the age of eighteen were homeless and unaccompanied by an adult. Just under half of those kids slept in a bed that night. Just over half – well, no one but them knows where they slept that night.

Let’s drill down a little bit on those unaccompanied homeless youth so we can learn more about them, then get to work debunking some of the common myths about homelessness.

Homeless Teens: Debunking Myth #1

Let’s start with a debate about the data. You may have noticed that in contrast to the HUD analysis, the National Runaway Switchboard estimates that on any given night, over one million youth spend the night living on the streets, with friends, in abandoned buildings, or anyway they can find.

The main reason for large discrepancy in these figures?

Experts suggest that the methods for counting homeless youth don’t account for the primary survival strategies employed by homeless youth. Homelessness advocates accept that while the HUD P-I-T analysis is a step in the right direction for estimating the level of federal need for homeless programs, the numbers are inaccurate because many homeless teens survive by staying transient, sticking with friends, living in groups, and hiding in plain sight.

They also reiterate the following fact:

Homeless teens avoid raising their hands to be counted.

The most common myth about homeless teens are that they’re homeless for economic reasons. Meaning most people think homeless youth come from families living at or below the poverty level, and that their homelessness is a direct result of a lack of means to secure housing.

This is untrue.

How and Why Teens Become Homeless

In order, the reasons teenagers become homeless are:

  1. Problems with family. Many teenagers run away from home and subsequently become homeless because of unbearbal conditions in their home environment. They may suffer physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. They may leave to avoid difficulties caused by a family member struggling with an alcohol or substance use disorder or a mental illness. Also, they may leave because they have emotional or physical issues of their own. If their families are unable to deal with them,  they may be asked to leave. In the words of one shelter worker, “Homelessness knows no zipcode.” Meaning homeless teens are as likely to come from middle or upper middle class families as they are from families at or near the poverty line.
  2. Leaving foster or institutional care. Upon discharge from foster care or other residential facilities – shelters, youth detention, etc. – youth are often without means to secure housing. They have no resources, no jobs, and no family support. They end up on the street because of the lack of shelters serving young people and shelter admissions policies requiring the presence of a custodial adult.
  3. Economic problems. What most people think is the first reason youth become homeless is actually the last. Families can become homeless when parents lose jobs. They can become homeless when one parent gets incarcerated or when affordable housing is unavailable. They may become homeless when the cost of healthcare drains their resources. Children in these families may begin their period of homelessness with their families, but over time get separated. Either by circumstance or through government intervention, they end up living on the streets alone.

Homeless Teens: What Can Be Done?

Since no one fixed thing causes homelessness, a single, one-size-fits-all solution will probably not work. In lieu of waving a magic wand, The National Alliance to End Homelessness and The Center for Evidence-based Solutions to Homelessness offer the following suggestions to help end homelessness in general, and youth and teen homelessness in particular:

  • Prioritize Early Intervention. Families at risk of homelessness need external help to avoid becoming homeless. Family interventions can include assistance with mental health issues, alcohol or substance use disorders, domestic violence and abuse initiatives, and temporary housing options.
  • Improve Crisis Response. Federal, state, and local authorities can allocate more resources toward families and youth in crisis or at-risk. Many experts suggest alternative models such as special host homes or developing more flexible rules and guidelines for existing homeless shelters.
  • Expand Transitional Housing. Federal, state, and local authorities can allocate more resources toward transitional, permanent, or semi-permanent housing programs for vulnerable youth for whom family reunification is impossible or unsafe.
  • Effective National Coordination. Homeless youth would be best served by a cooperative effort that unifies local, state, and federal resources. A single system can more easiy count, track, and offer assistance. The current situation is a maze of bureaucracy. Homeless teens often get frustrated with the rules and regulations required to get help.

A Comprehensive Effort

We can untangle the complex problem of homelessness, but only if we make it a nationwide priority. The data shows homelessness in adolescents occurs just as often for middle- and upper-class kids as it does for kids from lower income brackets. Which means that adults from all walks of life have a vested interest in choosing leaders who recognize the enormity of the challenge. Because it’s not a rich/poor issue, it’s not a liberal/conservative issue, and it’s not an urban/rural issue. It’s an issue for all of us to recognize, prioritize, and work together to solve.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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