Why Do Young People Become Homeless in America?

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Why Do Young People Become Homeless in America? 2017-03-12T17:13:34+00:00

The vast majority of youth do not become homeless by choice.  Many different factors contribute to youth homelessness, but studies suggest that there are common paths to homelessness for young people. The majority of homeless youth have either run away, been kicked out of unstable home environments, abandoned by their families or caregivers, involved with public systems (foster care, juvenile justice, and mental health), or have a history of residential instability and disconnection.

Family Dysfunction, Rejection and Conflict

For many youth, instability in their homes forces them out onto the streets before they are adults. Common family experiences include child abuse and/or neglect, domestic violence, parental substance use, and family conflict. Ninety percent of youth accessing youth shelters for minors through the federally funded Basic Center programs state that they experience difficulty at home, such as constant fighting or screaming.1

Parental issues and ensuing conflict related to a youth’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression is another reason youth become homeless. Youth are kicked out of their home or leave home because it is too dangerous for them to stay. One study found that twenty-five percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth reported family rejection as the reason for their homelessness.2 Another study found that over one-third of youth who were either in the care of social services or who were homeless had been physically assaulted in their homes upon coming out to their family.3

There is a disproportionate number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth among the homeless youth population. Multiple studies have shown that up to 40% of homeless youth are LGBT.4 Our society has changed dramatically in the acceptance of LGBT persons, but some families and community members have been unable to accept these realities. Family rejection for being who you are is enormously detrimental psychologically, and evidence suggests that these young people have increased depression and a sense of futility that leads to risk-taking and even self-destructive behaviors. At the same time, LGBT homeless youth are targeted for even more exploitation on the streets than their straight homeless peers.

Jessica left home when she was 15 to escape abuse after her sole source of support, her brother, left to join the Air Force.  She didn’t have money for rent so she slept on friends couches in the beginning, then she started sleeping in laundromats or the public library and staying awake all night on the streets to try to stay safe.

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Child Welfare System Involvement

For some youth, family instability leads to involvement with the child welfare system. There is a disproportionate representation of foster youth among the homeless youth population. Approximately 12 to 36 percent5 of youth, ages 18 or 21, exiting the foster care system due to emancipation (“aging out”) become homeless. Approximately 23,000 to 27,000 youth age out of the foster care system every year.6 Though some former foster care youth manage to find adequate living situations after emancipation, one study found that 31% of youth transitioned more than five times within a two to four year span post-foster care.7 This is due primarily to the fact that, while youth are expected to be independent, few have acquired the skills or ability to earn the income needed to live on their own post-emancipation.

In a recent data collection project of 656 homeless youth between the ages of 14 and 21, 51% reported having stayed in a foster home or group home.8

Youth who emancipate from foster care are less likely than youth in general to graduate from high school or college. Limited support coupled with low educational attainment results in limited employment opportunities and leads to unemployment and financial instability, which contributes to homelessness. Low earning potential and instability with a general shortage of affordable housing result in youth “couch-surfing” in order to avoid sleeping on the streets.

Additionally, a significant number of young people in the foster care system run away or are forced out of their foster care living situation due to conflict and/or rejection. Every year, 4,500 to 6,500 young people run away from their foster care placement.9 Some young people run away because they want to reconnect with their biological family and other young people are fleeing abusive or unwelcoming foster care placements.

Aaron’s sole caretaker, his mother, died when he was a teenager and he had no other family who could care for him. No one stepped in to care for him; not even the child welfare system. Aaron was sleeping at friends’ houses for a bit, but soon ended up homeless and living on the streets.

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Juvenile Justice System Involvement

There is a two-way relationship between youth homelessness and the criminal justice system. Youth involved with the criminal justice system are more likely to report unstable housing.10 Young people who end up on the streets are often victimized or commit minor status offenses in order to survive (acquire food and shelter). Homeless youth report a high level of involvement with the criminal justice system, at 20-30%.11 Much of this is due to arrests that stem from activities associated with daily survival such as panhandling, loitering, or sleeping outdoors. In addition, homeless youth on the streets are often victims of crime, including assault, robbery, commercial sexual exploitation and labor trafficking.12 Unfortunately, these youth end up in the juvenile justice system and upon exit, return to the street with nowhere to go and few skills to help avoid homelessness.

A large number of youth who exit juvenile detention later become homeless and a significant number of emancipated (aged-out) former foster youth become incarcerated. The Midwest Evaluation found 12% of young men who aged out of foster care were incarcerated.13 This is due primarily to the fact that while youth are expected to be independent, few have acquired the skills needed to live on their own post-emancipation. In addition, involvement with the justice system increases a youth’s chances of later homelessness. The odds of becoming homeless within a year of release from incarceration, including the juvenile justice system, is 1 in 11.14

Charlene’s mom struggled with addiction and when Charlene was 13 years old she became the primary caretaker of her three younger sisters.  Charlene became pregnant at age 16 and after her son was born, her stepfather began to sexually abuse and rape her.  Charlene found the strength to report her stepfather to the police and he was incarcerated. Soon after, Charlene was placed in foster care with her son.  At 18, she exited foster care and became homeless with her son.

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Economic Hardship

Families facing economic hardship due to poverty and the depressed economic climate are unable to support themselves and their children. Joblessness coupled with residential instability experienced by poverty stricken families due to a lack of sustainable and affordable housing, force many youth to find shelter outside of the traditional nuclear family dwelling.

Residential Instability

Many homeless youth report a history of residential instability that may stretch back to when they were still with their family. One study found that 40% of homeless youth had parents who received public assistance or lived in public housing.15 A family’s poor economic situation can lead to family homelessness. Family homelessness may then lead to a youth being homeless on their own as they grow older or are separated from their families. In fact, some family shelters do not take older youth, particularly males16, which may result in the youth being on their own and on the streets. In other instances, a lack of financial resources leads to older youth leaving the household to lessen the strain on the rest of the family. A youth may move from couch-surfing to the streets or other places, like abandoned buildings, etc., as the effectiveness of their survival strategies in keeping them off the streets wanes. 80% of older youth who enter a federally-funded Transitional Living Program report the inability to maintain housing as a reason for their homelessness, and 35% report insufficient income to sustain housing.17

Becoming pregnant or a young parent can also result in residential instability. Many youth are ejected from their homes due to their pregnancies, and even more homeless youth become pregnant once they are on the streets. Up to 50% of street youth will have a pregnancy experience, and most of those will give birth while still homeless.18 Studies have found that one third of parenting teens have experienced homelessness, with 40% of these surviving on the streets while pregnant.19

Extreme Disconnection

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about “disconnected youth“, also known as “opportunity youth“. Disconnected youth are characterized by their disconnection from education, the workforce, and networks of social support. They are off-track to reach a future that includes self-sufficiency, economic stability, and overall well-being.  Homeless youth are the most extreme example of disconnection and face multiple hurdles to reconnection.

Most homeless youth are disconnected from educational systems and have been off-track educationally for an extended period of time. This includes long periods without school attendance or enrollment. This often culminates in dropping out prior to completion of a high school degree. Lack of high school completion is linked to unemployment and diminished earnings among those who are employed. Someone who has not completed high school is four times more likely to be unemployed than a college graduate.20

Some youth are homeless because they are on their own and unable to afford housing due primarily to unemployment or underemployment. The degree of youth disconnected from the workforce is at unprecedented levels. There are 2.7 million fewer jobs currently for youth 16-24 then there would have been if there had not been a recession.21 Just over half  of young adults ages 18-24 are currently employed, the lowest it has been since the government began collecting data in 1948.22 And the picture is starker for homeless youth who had little opportunity to develop the academic credentials, job skills, and work supports needed to gain employment.

Footnotes

1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2013). Report to Congress on the Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011. Washington DC: U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.
2. National Alliance to End Homelessness. (2009). Incidence and vulnerability of LGBTQ homeless youth. Washington DC: National Alliance to End Homelessness.
3. Ray, N. (2007). Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth: An epidemic of homelessness. National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute & National Coalition for the Homeless.
4. Quintana, N. S., Rosenthal, J., & Krehely, J. (2010). On the streets: The federal response to gay and transgender homeless youth. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.
5. R White, “Introduction”, Child Welfare, vol. LXXXIII, no. 5 (September/October 2004): 389-392. Dworsky, Dillman, Dion, Coffee-Borden, & Rosenau, Housing for Youth Aging out of Foster Care: A Review of the Literature and Program Typology, March 2012, Retrieved from huduser.org/portal/publications/interim/hsg_fter_care.html
6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) Report FY 2010-2013: acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/research-data-technology/statistics-research/afcars.
7. Courtney, M., et al. (2011). Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Outcomes at Age 26. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2014). Street Outreach Program: Data Collection Project Executive Summary.
9. Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) Report FY 2010-2013: acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/research-data-technology/statistics-research/afcars.
10. Feldman, D., & Patterson, D. (2003). WIA Youth Offender Study: Characteristics and program experience of youthful offenders within Seattle-King County Workforce Investment Act (WIA) programs. Seattle, WA: Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County.
11. Ferguson, Kristin M et al. (2011) Exploration of Arrest Activity among Homeless Young Adults in Four U.S. Cities. Social Work Research, 36(3): 233-238.
12. Family & Youth Services Bureau. (2014). Research Roundup: what Leads Homeless Youth to Have Run-ins With the Law? Retrieved from: ncfy.acf.hhs.gov/news/2014/09/research-roundup-what-leads-homeless-youth-have-run-ins-law
13. Courtney, Mark et al. (2011). Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Outcomes at Age 26. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
14. Sermons, M. W., & Witte, P. (2011). State of homelessness in America: A research report on homelessness. Washington DC: National Alliance to End Homelessness.
15. Moore, J. (2006). Unaccompanied and homeless youth: Review of literature (1995-2005). Greensboro, NC: National Center for Homeless Education.
16. This still happens in communities across the United States, even though the HEARTH Act of 2009 prohibited this practice starting from 2 years after its enactment. See 42 USC § 11302 § 404(a).
17. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2013). Report to Congress on the Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011. Washington DC: U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.
18. Greene, J.M., & Ringwalt, C.L. (1998). Pregnancy among three national samples of runaway and homeless youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 23,(6).
19. Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy. (2013). Living on the Edge: The Conflict and Trauma that Lead to Teen Parent Homelessness.
20. American Human Development Project. (2009). Goals for the common good: Exploring the impact of education. Brooklyn, NY: American Human Development Project.
21. O’Sullivan, R., & Johnston, A. (2012). No end in sight? The long-term jobs gap and what it means for America. Washington DC: Young Invincibles.
22. Taylor, P., Parker, K., Kochhar, R., Fry, R., Funk, C., Patten, E., & Motel, S. (2012). Young, underemployed and optimistic: Coming of age, slowly, in a tough economy. Washington DC: Pew Research Center.