On the streets of cities and towns across the United States, many young people find themselves in a position where they are without a home and left to fend for themselves. According to studies on national characteristics of runaway children, there are nearly 1.7 million of these young people, under the age of 18, who lack parental, foster, or institutional care. This number is a conservative estimate because it does not include young adults between the ages of 18 and 24. Additionally, there are many young people who do not seek help, cannot be tracked, or disappear.
There is no one reason for why youth experience homelessness. Their stories and situations vary from person to person. As information on youth and homelessness from the National Coalition for the Homeless shows, some young people lack housing because they ran away from an abusive household, relationship, or foster home. Some are homeless because despite employment, they cannot afford rent and end up living on the street. There are some youth who were kicked out of their homes after they come out to their families as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning (LGBTQ). While their personal stories are different, the fact remains that these are still youth on the street who need help. As such, providers should be aware of the challenges faced by young people experiencing homelessness.
According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), youth experiencing homelessness have a higher risk of being in a gang, using heroin, feeling depressed, attempting suicide, or experiencing trauma and violence than their housed counterparts. School can also be a challenge for many such youth. For a student experiencing homelessness, who the night before was rushing to get across town to get to a shelter before all the beds are full, getting to class the next day and staying awake during class would be a challenge. Often homeless youth change schools so frequently that it impacts their ability to achieve a quality education.
School breaks for many homeless youth are a period of uncertainty and stress. For some youth, school is a place to go for a few hours that is sure to be more peaceful than the streets. Yet during school breaks, youth can be put in a very tough situation. For some youth, what should be a leisurely break quickly becomes one of stress and fear. While many of their classmates are home on break, many homeless youth are looking for a safe place to sleep, childcare, employment, and a meal.
Young people experiencing homelessness also face challenges while accessing housing services, particularly at adult shelters. They sometimes avoid going to adult shelters because they contain the many vices homeless youth try to avoid: drugs, alcohol, violence, fighting, and even sexual assault.
Additionally, youth experiencing homelessness often struggle to secure adequate employment. Not only is their education limited, accessing showers, hygiene products, and interview attire is often difficult. When they do get a job, the positions often pay minimum wage, which is not a living wage for many. Many such youth find unreported employment (“under the table” work) and some resort to illegal activities to survive.
Given the challenges these youth face, it’s important for providers to understand their unique needs. The following videos provide guidance for providers working with youth experiencing homelessness:
Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.