The Homeless Youth Crisis In America

Some of the first images that come to mind when we think of homelessness are those portrayed by the media: middle-aged or elderly people who have a mental illness or drug addiction. Not only can this image be disparaging to those within the homeless community dealing with mental illness or substance abuse, but it is also a generalization that fails to account for the range of people affected by homelessness. In actuality, the United States homeless crisis affects a surprisingly large number of young people. November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, an opportunity to learn more about the issues confronting these young people and what can be done to address the crisis. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, at some point in their lives, more than 1.6 million young people will be homeless, a number that is increasing every year. The National Coalition for the Homeless defines a homeless youth as someone below the age of 18 who lacks any parental or institutional care. They are also sometimes referred to as “unaccompanied” youth. Safe Horizon, an organization that helps victims of various kinds of abuse, defines homeless youth demographics. According their website, children under the age of 18 make up 39 percent of the homeless youth population, while 42 percent are under the age of five. Furthermore, 20 to 40 percent of homeless youths define themselves as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender (LGBT), compared to only 10 percent of non-homeless youth that do. This suggests that LGBT youths end up homeless at a much higher rate than non-LGBT-identifying youths. The reasons young people end up homeless are numerous, though are frequently rooted in their parental care (or lack thereof). According to Safe Horizon, “Young people are at far greater risk of becoming homeless if their parents engage in substance abuse or have mental health problems, if there is child abuse or neglect in the home, if the family has been homeless previously or if they identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered.” Family instability, whether due to mental illness, substance abuse or physical or sexual mistreatment, seems to be at the root of why many young people end up homeless. It is more common for a young people to become homeless by escaping their living situation than for a parent or parental figure to forcibly remove them from it. Life on the street is difficult for homeless youths due to high instances of violence, sexual abuse and disease. According to Safe Horizon, 5,000 young people die every year due to violence, disease or suicide due to being homeless. Additionally, since as many as one in three LGBT-identifying youths are turned away from shelter care due to their sexual orientation, many LGBT-identifying youths commit suicide while homeless. Although these facts are sobering, there is hope. Largely due to projects spearheaded by social workers, projects like Safe Horizon’s Streetwork program, homeless youths can find food and refuge. Support organizations also offer a whole range of social services including psychological and legal counseling, and, perhaps most importantly, a non-judgmental atmosphere. Ordinary people can get involved with programs like Streetwork by donating their time and money. In order to effect productive, lasting social change, everyone has to be involved in helping to alleviate the problems homeless youths face.