Runaway & Homeless Youth Awareness Month
By Maurie Bergeron and Tom Baker
“The nation’s runaways are legion, amounting to the populace of a big city scattered to the four winds. Yet like spies in our midst, they hide their pasts and are largely invisible. They lay low in friend's basements, shift from apartment to apartment and couch to couch, and hang out where other kids congregate. Young and restless, they are also troubled and highly vulnerable” (Slavin, 2001).
It is estimated that between 750,000 and 2 million young adults, ages 18-24, experience homelessness each year in the United States. The same factors that leave adults vulnerable to homelessness- poverty, lack of affordable housing, low education levels, mental health and substance abuse- also contribute to homelessness among the youth population (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2010).However, a significant difference that contributes to youth homelessness is a youth’s dependence on their family of origin or the state system that has them in their care, for emotional, financial and housing support. This factor is due in large part to age and lack of life experience. It is estimated that up to one-third of youth aging out of foster care experience homelessness (NN4Y, 2014).
The single most common reason why young people experience homelessness is family conflict. It is estimated that about one in two homeless youth have witnessed physical abuse between their caregivers (Rabinovitz, et al., 2010). Estimates also show that, in some urban centers, up to 40% of youth experiencing homelessness identifies as LGBT, and many are homeless due to parental non-acceptance of their sexual orientation or gender identification (The True Colors Fund, 2015). The reasons why young people run away from home are complex, and there is no single explanation for youth homelessness in the United States.
Once in a situation of homelessness, young people may face numerous barriers to stable housing including lack of affordable housing, low wages, lack of family support and mental health/substance abuse problems (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2010). Young people navigating life on the streets are at a heightened risk for exposure to violence both as witnesses and victims, and many are also at an increased risk for exposure to sexual victimization as a result of participation in survival sex (Kipke, et al., 1998; Whitbeck, et al., 2004).
While homeless young adults face significant risk factors both on the trajectory towards homelessness and once homeless, they also constitute an incredibly resilient and bold population. The decision on the part of a young person to be open about their situation of homelessness and to reach out for help is an extraordinarily daring one. As providers who work with homeless or at-risk young people, it is critical that we honor their strength and vulnerability in reaching out for help. Once a young person comes through the door, it is our job as providers to both help these young people address their past risk factors and trauma histories through the adoption of a Trauma-Informed service model, and work to nurture their strengths and skills according to a Positive Youth Development framework. With proper attention and support, young people can and do find a path out of homelessness and become thriving adults.
November is Runaway Prevention Month, and there is no better time to reflect on the role that we can all play in providing alternatives to running away for young people in crisis, and in working towards finding community-wide solutions to youth homelessness. Community education is critical to this lofty goal, and important national resources include the National Runaway Safeline, the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the National Network for Youth (NN4Y).
On a local level, LUK’s North County RHY and Compass Networks, embedded within TIL Services, exist to bring together low-barrier access sites and community stakeholders to create a coordinated regional response to youth homelessness. Working together as a community, we can address the risk factors that leave young people in our community vulnerable to homelessness and effectively intervene in the lives of those young people who are currently experiencing homelessness. Please, contact Tom Baker at LUK (978-579-0000) if you wish to participate in our local networks helping to support homeless youth in Central Massachusetts!