Last night, around 7 p.m., I found myself in a brightly painted community room surrounded by camera operators, photographers, and a bunch of boisterous, energetic young people (alarmingly nonplussed by the presence of all the media).
It was quite the motley crew.
I was at the Sasha Bruce House in Washington, D.C. The homeless youth shelter was playing host to legendary rap band Public Enemy, who – with the assistance of Virgin Mobile USA – was paying a visit to the shelter to raise awareness about youth homelessness.
The Alliance – as a leading authority on homelessness policy, trends, and research – was invited to attend and give a few remarks.
In preparation to attend this event, I tried to brush up on my facts. How many homeless youth are there? Who are they and where do they come from? How do they become homeless? What can we do about it? What are the best strategies to make sure that our youth remain safe and housed?
Turns out, there’s some discord about this particular topic in the homelessness field.
There’s a noticeable dearth of information about youth homelessness and upon giving it some more thought, it’s not hard to understand why. Some of the most accomplished advocates and researchers gathering data on homeless people will testify to its trying difficulty. Collecting data on homeless youth, then, is likely only harder, as youth are even less likely to seek out or be aware of social services available to them. Between that reality, and the fact that the definition of the term “youth” tends to vary widely by organization, the picture of youth homelessness is a bit fuzzy.
But here’s what we do know:
There approximately 50,000 street-dependent youth in the United States every year, and are up to two million youth experience an episode of homelessness during the course of a year.
Youth typically become homeless because of some kind of family disruption – divorce is one example, abuse is another. Youth also tend to become homeless after they exit state-run programs, namely the foster care and juvenile justice systems. Young people discharged from those programs rarely have access to a transitional program that provides them the skills and knowledge necessary to secure employment, find housing, and become productive members of society. As such, young people coming out of these programs often fall into homelessness.
While most youth who experience homelessness quickly return to family or friends, some do experience long-term homelessness. For those that do, street-dependent life presents great dangers. Homeless youth encounter a high incidence of violence, exploitation, and sexual assault while living on the streets.
Another something we know: there are things we can do. The Alliance advocates for three distinct tracts to prevent and end youth homelessness: 1) an increase in early intervention and family reunification services for homeless youth, 2) an expansion of long-term housing options consistent with young people’s developmental needs, and 3) after-care support to end homelessness for youth exiting foster care and correctional settings. These are strategies that show success in preventing and ending youth homelessness.
Surrounded by the cheerful, bright young residents of Sasha Bruce House, it’s easy to forget that they all somehow found themselves in a homeless youth shelter. Hopefully, with the help of private sector partners, the hard work of community leaders, and the energy of the young people themselves, we’ll find a way back home.