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When Young People Are Homeless for the Holidays

When children living at D.C. General Emergency Family Hypothermia Shelter, Washington, D.C.’s largest shelter, were asked about their home, we heard:

“I live here.”

“I live in the shelter, right here.”

“At D.C. General.”

“We sleep in a [shut down] hospital.”

I’ve volunteered at D.C. General, a closed hospital turned homeless shelter, every Tuesday night for the past few years through the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project (Playtime), and have learned how resilient children can be when faced with adversity. Living in a homeless shelter can be confusing, stressful, and scary for children who may have spent much of their young lives worried about their basic needs. However, with the support of their parents, siblings, and staff through programs like Playtime, children and youth are comforted knowing they have a bed to come home to every night.

What about youth who don’t have that assurance, who are homeless and without a family?

The Homestretch (trailer) from Spargel Productions on Vimeo.  (For more about The Homestretch, check out our blog post from earlier this year.)

Youth ages 12 to 17 may be at greater risk of becoming homeless than adults. Many teens leave home; one in seven young people between the ages of 10 and 18 will run away or be forced from their home, at some point. Each year, among the young people who don’t return to their families and who remain homeless, 5,000 will die from illness, assaults, or suicide.

Many unaccompanied homeless youth avoid asking for help, so it is difficult to determine how many young people are homeless. Fears of judgment or being placed in a public system such as the child welfare or criminal justice systems, as well as  a lack of knowledge about their rights and available resources, are a few of the obstacles that keep youth from the assistance they need and from being identified as homeless. In recent years, the federal government has taken steps to address youth homelessness. In 2010, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) presented Opening Doors (amended in 2015), the nation’s first comprehensive federal strategy to prevent and end homelessness. Part of the plan targets unaccompanied youth, who make up more than 15 percent of the U.S. homeless population.

Planning prevention and intervention programs can be difficult, when estimates on the numbers of youth experiencing homelessness vary so widely. Statistics on young people living in shelters, on the street, or in other public places range from about one million to 1.6 million in a given year (five percent of all American youth), to 110,000 each year living day-to-day on the streets (approximately 55,000 ages 12 to 17, and 55,000 ages 18 to 24), to 45,205 unaccompanied young people on a single night. Additionally, these approximations do not include young people who are “couch surfing” with friends or family, or in other situations where they lack a permanent address.

Why do young people run away?

One reason youth run away is past trauma. Research across a number of studies has found that 40 to 60 percent of homeless youth experienced physical abuse and 17 to 35 percent suffered from sexual abuse. Family conflict, often exacerbated by mental health disabilities or substance abuse, is also a main cause of youth homelessness. Over half of young people on the streets and in shelters reported their parents told them to leave home, or knew they were leaving and didn’t care. This is especially an issue among young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) and is a contributing reason why 20 to 40 percent of homeless teens are LGBTQ youth.

Young people who were in foster care are also at a high risk of becoming homeless. In addition to running away, youth in foster care can become homeless simply by getting older and aging out of the child welfare system. Within four years of exiting foster care, one-quarter of youth experience homelessness. According to the Midwest Study, by age 26 more than a third of youth formerly in foster care had reported at least one episode of homelessness.  Since many young people involved in child welfare lack an adequate support system, helping these youth find a place to live is critical to preventing them from becoming homeless.

What are we working on that may help these young people?

Child Trends is working with partner organizations to research programs, state policies, and interventions focused on ending youth homelessness. We are studying young people in foster care as they transition out of care, by looking into what policies and practices play a role in improving their permanency outcomes. By surveying states on what services and supports are available for youth aging out of care, we will better understand best practices in finding housing for these young people. We are also evaluating a state intervention program focused on preventing homelessness among the most at-risk youth within the child welfare system. Additionally, Child Trends is synthesizing literature on family reunification interventions for youth who are homeless and other young people at risk. These projects will help build the evidence base for what works to prevent youth homelessness, especially for young people who were involved with the child welfare system.

We are hopeful that in the future fewer children and youth will be homeless at the holidays and throughout the year.

Garet Fryar, Senior Research Assistant, Child Welfare


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