Too Many Teens Ask: “Where Will I Sleep Tonight?”

I have a movie recommendation for you. It has all the makings of a blockbuster:  suspense, humor, lovable characters you can relate to, and it’s a tearjerker to boot. It follows the protagonists as they fight for their lives through all kinds of hurdles, while somehow holding on to an incredible spirit.

Unfortunately, though, I’m not talking about a movie set in a war zone, or, the latest superhero comic book adaptation. I’m talking about The Homestretch, a documentary following the real lives of three homeless youth enrolled in Chicago public schools.

I study at-risk youth for a living, but I still left this film feeling overwhelmed by spending an hour in the shoes of these young people, experiencing the barriers they face every day.

The three young people in the film are pretty typical of what we call “unaccompanied” homeless youth, that is, youth who are homeless on their own, without their families. Two were abandoned or neglected by their birth parents as young teens, one of these youth was subsequently physically and sexually abused by other adults who were supposed to take care of him. The third teen left home after being rejected by her mother and grandmother for coming out as a lesbian.

Like most young people, homeless youth want to fit in with their peers. They may avoid traditional homelessness services and reject the label of homelessness. They crash on a friend’s couch when they can, or, if they’re lucky, they get into one of the limited spots in a transitional living program that will give them a room of their own for several months or even years. One of the youth in Homestretch was staying with his teacher, who realized he was homeless when she saw him wandering the streets after school one night. All of this can make it hard to know how many homeless youth there are in the U.S., because the traditional way we count homeless individuals is by going to shelters and looking on the street. Although it’s almost definitely an underestimate, the latest count tells us that there were 45,205 unaccompanied homeless children and youth on a single night in 2014 (there were another 194,000 children and youth who are homeless with a family member). Some communities are now trying out new ways of counting homeless youth to get more accurate numbers – including finding youth who are in unstable housing conditions.

Because homeless youth can be hard to identify, it’s also hard to know where to reach them to provide the support they need, from safe housing to counseling, to monitor their progress, or how to find the youth who are about to become homeless. We do know that some youth are at greater risk of becoming homeless – in particular, LGBTQ youth, youth leaving foster care, and youth living in abusive or unstable households.

Think about your worst worries as a teenager, or even as a young adult – did they include finding a place to sleep, because your friend’s dad wouldn’t let you stay over yet another night? Or how you would find a quiet place to study in the crowded place where you were staying on the floor, so you might have a chance to graduate from high school? Or not having a dependable adult who cared about you? I hope not, but it hurts to think this is the reality for thousands of young people in our country – kids you might not even notice if you passed them on the street.

The Homestretch is showing on PBS’ Independent Lens on April 13.

Learn more about homeless children and youth.

Note: As an independent, nonpartisan organization, Child Trends does not advocate on specific policies that may be promoted by the producers of this documentary.