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We’ve all seen them. They spread in groups on the sidewalks outside New Orleans’ downtown businesses, maybe with a dog curled on side of them. Their tattoos and piercings make them look aggressive, and their baggy clothing makes them appear bigger than they really are. Smoking, drinking, conversing amongst one another and refusing to make eye contact (most of us look away anyways); homeless youth seem determined to hold us at an ironic distance even as their illegible cardboard signs beg for our help. When I became homeless for a few months, I realized much of this is really just a facade. In some ways it’s similar to the grownup front American adolescents put on every day, except there’s more at risk on the streets. A homeless youngster looks tough to ward off exploitation and assault.
“As many as 1 in 10 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25—or 3.5 million young people—experience homelessness over a 12-month period, according to the Voice of Youth Count survey, a new study by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago” (Kim). About half of this includes couch surfing, crashing at a friend’s house for a few days, but typically involves more long-term housing instability. The other half is obvious homelessness, sleeping in cars, park benches or under bridges. And while homelessness is often perceived to be an urban problem, the study shows that rural youth were just as likely to have experienced homelessness. Besides shelter, teens and twenty-somethings left on the streets need programs that will focus on their natural energy and appetite for independence, and that will provide tools necessary for achieving healthy self-sufficiency. Understandably, building effective programs for these adolescents is very different from working with homeless adults.
To understand youth homelessness, it is very important to look at the issues that lead kids to the street. Youth become homeless for a variety of reasons, which include: being kicked out of homes where the family doesn’t approve of their sexual orientation or gender identity, neglect and childhood trauma. Or they may have aged out of the foster system. Without resources, family support, or skills to live self-sufficiently, kids can find themselves on the street where they face abuse and other dangers. The longer youth remain displaced, the more barriers they face to escape the streets and build a future.
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