Homeless Youth Problem Misunderstood

On the 40th anniversary of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, federal administrators discuss youth homelessness.
Homeless Youth Problem Misunderstood

WASHINGTON—For 40 years, the federal government has sought to end youth homelessness beginning with the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act in 1974.

“Before [the Act] was signed, young people who had run away, or had been found on the streets, were routinely viewed as delinquents, put in detention centers or jailed,” said Mark Greenberg, Acting Assistant Secretary, Administration for Children & Families, Department of Health and Human Services.

Greenberg spoke on Oct. 22,at the National Press Club, with several colleagues. The speakers called for ending youth homelessness by 2020. As Laura Green Zeilinger, executive director, United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), put it, “Every young person deserves a safe and stable place to call home.”

During the 40 years, hundreds of community-based organizations have arisen to help end youth homelessness. There’s still a lot we don’t know. For one, there is not an accurate count of the number of homeless youth.

Need Is Great

Greenberg provided some data on the degree to which the federal government and communities are sheltering youth. In 2013, Greenberg said emergency shelters were made available to more than 30,000 youth across the country. An additional 3,322 young people, suffering from abuse, abandonment or other severe family issues, and unable to return home, entered transitional living programs, which help these youth to live independently.

The amount of aid administered is impressive, but the need is greater than what is provided by the government and communities. Greenberg said, “The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that on a single night in January of 2013, there were 46,924 unaccompanied children, teens, and young adults experiencing homelessness in the United States.”

Study Findings

One of the purposes of the event was to release the Executive Summary of a federal study of youth homelessness, which investigated the population of homeless youth, and the services that were helpful or not helpful. The full report will come out at the end of this year.

The study was conducted on behalf of Street Outreach Program (SOP) by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. SOP focuses on “getting youth off the streets and providing some basic living essentials and service referrals,” according to the study. SOP is administered by the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), which comes under the Administration for Children & Families. The study obtained its respondents through its 11 SOP grantees located across the country, from Boston and Washington, D.C., to Seattle and San Diego.

Unfortunately, the study failed to successfully implement its sampling methodology and resorted to selecting about two-thirds of the respondents by convenience sampling. It’s as if you were to conduct a survey of all New York City inhabitants by interviewing people on one street corner in downtown Manhattan. It would be convenient, but likely very biased.

Even though the sample is not nationally representative, it can provide insights into the service needs of the 656 street youth who participated in the survey.

Misconception: Can Go Back Home

Dr. Resa Matthew, director of Division of Adolescent Development and Support, FYSB, said the study removes some the misconceptions. A common one is that “young people could go home, find someone to stay with or go to a shelter.”

Getting off the street is usually harder than that.

“Study participants had been homeless on and off for a total of about two years—two years of wondering where they are going to sleep each night, where their next meal might come from… More than half of the self-reported that they tried to get to a shelter for safe housing, but the beds were not available. More than one in four youths said they had no transportation to get to a shelter.”

Furthermore, Dr. Matthew noted that “more than half of homeless youth became homeless for the first time because they were asked to leave home by a parent or caregiver.”

The report said that almost a quarter became homeless due to being physically abused or beaten by a caretaker with a drug or alcohol problem. Only 30 percent of respondents reported that they actually had an option to return home.

The participants in the study were commonly victimized. The sample respondents reported that 61 percent had been sexually assaulted or raped, beaten, assaulted with a weapon, or robbed.

Misconception: No Aspirations

Another misconception is that homeless youth don’t have aspirations. “More than half of the young people said they needed services to advance their education,” Resa said.

An example of high aspiration is a 24-year-old African American man, Anthony Ross, who was made homeless at age 13. He never knew his father, and his mother and other relatives, who would take him in, were drug or alcohol addicts and abused him. He ended up on the streets, sleeping in cars and homeless shelters in Washington, D.C.

“I always had to watch my back and protect my belongings because different people would sleep in the shelter throughout the night. I wanted to do go to high school so bad, but I could not because I needed to feed and clothe myself. I enrolled in a 3-year GED program at age 16, while I worked at Starbucks in the daytime and Ruby Tuesday at night.”

Despite the adversity, Ross went on to attend St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, N.C., earned a 4.0 GPA in his freshman year, was elected student body president in his junior year, and last year graduated magna cum laude. He aspires to become an attorney and later run for political office.

Syncere St. Jamyz, from Chicago’s West Side also wanted an education. When his main caregiver, his mother, died from cancer, he became homeless. For about two years, he lived in abandoned buildings and friend’s houses, anywhere where he felt safe enough to go to sleep. For four years, he said “I tried going to school on and off but without a safe place to keep books and study—honestly doing homework in the rain sometimes ruined my books, sometimes stuff was stolen when I was asleep—it just created another barrier to trying to get an education.”

Ending Youth Homelessness Doable

“An important step toward ending youth homelessness is getting better data and getting a better understanding about why young people become homeless, what happens to them when they are homeless, and what services they need,” Greenberg said.

“These homeless kids hide, so it is hard to get a count. But we need to get a count,” said musician Cyndi Lauper, who co-founded True Colors Fund to end youth homelessness.

Cyndi Lauper is a celebrity, a Grammy, Emmy, and Tony award winning artist with global record sales in excess of 50 million and a legion of fans. Lauper, herself, said she was one of the kids that benefited from a program like those discussed.

She said, “I never thought .... I would ever be anything or amount to anybody. And it is ironic how I’m standing here with these people, the same kind of people that helped me reenter and go from youth hostels, to shelters, to a home of my own.”

“We know now that homelessness is not an intractable problem. It is a problem we can solve and a problem we are solving, said Zeilinger.

Zeilinger was confident that the federal government with “stakeholders across the country,” could make significant progress towards reducing or even ending youth homelessness because the number of homeless veterans has been reduced since 2010 by one third nationwide. It was accomplished through studies and research. It helped too that their programs received bipartisan support from Congress for the resources needed to get the job done.

“We have a federal framework to end youth homelessness where we set a path to progress by improving data and building system,” she said.

*Image of “homeless teenager“ via Shutterstock