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Youth Homelessness Policy & Data: What We Know and What We Don’t Know

The following excerpt on homelessness among young people comes from Jay S. Levy’s latest book Pretreatment Guide for Homeless Pretreatment Guide for Homeless OutreachOutreach & Housing First: Helping Couples, Youth, and Unaccompanied Adults (Loving Healing Press, 2013). The book provides human service professionals and concerned community members with a pretreatment guide for helping homeless Pretreatment Guide for Homeless Outreach couples, youth, and single adults.

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The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defined unaccompanied homeless youth as being less than 25 years of age and being literally homeless by living in a homeless shelter, designated transitional homeless program, or unsheltered, which includes places not meant for human habitation such as the streets, a vehicle or an abandoned building. The Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act, which went into effect on January 4, 2012 expanded this definition, though HUD’s yearly Point In Time count still utilizes the former definition. The newer definition (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2012) also includes youth who are doubled up (couch surfing) and lack a permanent residence as evidenced by two moves or more over the past sixty days and who are most apt to continue to be unstably housed due to disability or multiple barriers to employment. To further complicate things, there are other federal definitions such as the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2008) that states, “An individual who is not more than 21 years of age… for whom it is not possible to live in a safe environment with a relative; and has no other safe alternative living arrangement.”

Meanwhile the US Department of Education’s homeless student definition (2012) combines unaccompanied youth with those who live with their families in homeless shelters, or other unsheltered homeless settings. The challenge of trying to quantify, or even to begin helping homeless youth presents us with the initial difficulty of defining our terms, as well as identifying who and where they are. Many young persons without homes try to blend in with other youth, avoid adult services and resources inclusive of shelters, and may not even consider themselves to be homeless (Pope, 2009). Over the years I have met many young persons without homes who consider themselves to be free spirits or travelers, rather than acquiesce to the homeless label. However, researchers (Farrow, et al., 1992; Kenney & Shapiro, 2009) have categorized homeless youth in regard to these significant factors:

  • Runaways (left home without consent of parents or caretakers)
  • Throwaways (forced out of their homes by parents or caretakers)
  • Forced Removal from Home by Authorities
  • Aged out of Foster Care – Approximately 25% exper­ience homelessness
  • Exited juvenile justice system
  • Primarily Unsheltered/Street Youth.

Regardless of these multiple categories, conflicting definitions and our difficulties with achieving an accurate count, we know that the simultaneous impact of homelessness, poverty, and lack of a support network at a young age compromises current health and future develop­ment. Here are some sobering US statistics on health and safety that bear out this sad reality:

  • Approximately 40% to 60% of homeless youth report being physically abused and 17% to 35% sexually abused (NAEH, 2006; Robertson & Toro, 1998)
  • 15%-30% of youth without homes report engaging in “survival sex” (NAEH, 2009)
  • 48% of youth living on the streets have either experienced a pregnancy or reported impregnating someone (Toro, Dworsky & Fowler, 2007)
  • 41% report having a sexually transmitted infection, as compared to 8% of the general youth population (Kenney & Shapiro, 2009)
  • 50% of homeless youth report suicidal behavior, and more than 25% have attempted suicide (Ray, 2006)
  • Homeless youth are more likely to experience anxiety and mood disorders, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as a higher suicide rate then their housed peers (NAEH, 2006)
  • Approximately 75% use illicit drugs (NAEH, 2006)
  • Approximately 5,000 Youth experiencing homelessness die each year (NAEH, 2006).

Unfortunately, there are sub-populations that are even more apt to experience homelessness and its negative ramifications. Among them are young people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT). A recent survey by Durso & Gates (2012) confirms that LGBT individuals account for approximately 30- 40% of the homeless youth population. The survey found that 43% of clients served by drop-in centers and 30% of street outreach clients identified as LGBT. It also found that family rejection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was the most frequently cited factor contributing to LGBT homelessness. In addition, LGBT youth without homes are even more likely to experience mental health issues and attempt suicide compared to their heterosexual peers (Durso & Gates, 2012; NAEH, 2008). When we are working with LGBT youth, or homeless youth in general, our major goals include assuring safety, promoting acceptance, and facilitating a sense of belonging. These statistics are even more alarming when we consider the societal costs (moral, fiscal, and quality of life considerations) of young people being severely hurt and potentially struggling for many years to come.

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To learn more about the book and its author, check out www.jayslevy.com.

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