The Homeless Youth Situation in the United States
January 23, 2017
by Bethany Lake and Emma Granowsky
Homeless youth in the United States are estimated to make up about 12% of the total homeless population (Dang, Conger, Breslau, & Miller, 2014). Within this statistic there is wide variation based on age range, timeframe, and definition used, but sources estimate that between 500,000 and 2.8 million youth are homeless within the United States each year. (Homelessness and Runaway, n.d.). This vulnerable population faces increased risks for mental illness, abuse of drugs and alcohol, and sexual assault while also facing challenges accessing health care due to their social and economic status (Dang, Conger, Breslau, & Miller, 2014). While there can be a number of different reasons why youth become homeless, involvement in the juvenile justice or foster care systems, abuse, abandonment, and severe familial conflict are all associated with higher risk of youth homeless. Additionally, it is important to note that the experiences of unaccompanied homeless youth are different from those who experience homelessness with their families. While both forms of homelessness have significant detrimental effects on youth’s mental, physical, and emotional health, youth who are homeless with their families, may experience less severe outcomes because of the buffer familial support provides. Due to these differences, the aim of this paper is to explore the circumstances and risks associated with unaccompanied youth homelessness.
The path to homelessness is often a multifaceted issue and the path out of homelessness can be equally as complicated. Often times it is not simply a singular event that leads to homelessness, but rather the accumulation of risk over the life course. With that being said, certain risk factors are more predictive of youth homelessness than others, with the most common being familial instability (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2014). Familial instability can include but is not limited to child abuse, parental substance abuse, low socioeconomic status, familial conflict, parental incarceration, and single parent households. Furthermore, these risk factors are exacerbated by youth involvement in the juvenile justice system and the child welfare system. Often this correlation is found because youth age out of the child welfare system at eighteen and have no stable housing to return to and lack economic support (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2014). 51% of the homeless youth ages 14yrs-21yrs report having stayed in a foster home or a group home. This further illustrates the effects of familial instability on the likelihood of youth becoming homeless.
Once homeless, youth experience many challenges that negatively impact their physical and mental health complicating their exit from homelessness. Some of these challenges include economic hardship, continued homelessness, and extreme social isolation. Due to the lack of a permanent address and stigma against youth without previous work experience, homeless youth often face significant difficulties finding stable employment. In addition, the economic recession of 2008/2009 caused the loss of approximately 2.7 million jobs for youth aged 16yrs-24yrs (O’Sullivan & Johnston, 2012). In the United States, just over half of young adults ages 18yrs-24yrs are currently employed, the lowest American youth employment rate since data collection began in 1948 (Taylor et al. 2012). While this statistic is not specifically about homeless youth, it illustrates the compounded challenges that homeless youth face in the labor market. Similar to homeless adults, homeless youth face the cycle of continued homelessness through insufficient funds to support their housing. A study reported that 35% of older youth who entered federally-funded Transitional Living Programs could not afford their housing (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2014). An additional barrier to breaking the homeless cycle, includes homeless youth losing their social network by not attending school. This lack of education and social interaction thereby isolates them from typically developing peers and supportive mentors. This contributes to homeless youth’s tendency towards distrust of adults and governmental institutions and exemplifies the need for compassionate relationship building in order to bring them out of homelessness.
Youth homelessness is not an isolated issue but rather a systematic societal problem. The Family Reconciliation and Transitional Housing and Supportive Services provide some guidelines for successful approaches of reaching the homeless youth population (Sloane, Radday, & Stanzler, 2012). The first recommendation is extensive outreach. The second is proactive family reconciliation when the opportunity for the youth to return home is safe and desired. This reconciliation occurs through family counseling and short term crisis team support (Sloane, Radday, & Stanzler, 2012). When youth cannot return home, youth centered transitional housing and supportive services become an option. These services include short-term housing and support to help youth break the cycle of homelessness. These three guidelines act as a starting point for other NGO’s, individuals, and policies regarding youth homelessness. With an emphasis on reaching the current homeless youth, the number of homeless youth in the United States could be alleviated.
Dang, M. T., Conger, K. J., Breslau, J., & Miller, E. (2014). Exploring Protective Factors among Homeless Youth: The Role of Natural Mentors. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 25(3), 1121–38.
Homelessness and Runaway. (n.d.). Retrieved December 09, 2016, from http://youth.gov/youth-topics/runaway-and-homeless-youth
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.
Sloane, P., Radday, A., & Stanzler, C. (2012). IMPROVING OUTCOMES FOR HOMELESS YOUTH (Issue brief). Retrieved December 9, 2016, from Social Issue Report, Root Cause website: http://www.rootcause.org/docs/Resources/Research/Improving-Outcomes-for-Homeless-Youth/Improving Outcomes for Homeless Youth- Social Issue Report.pdf
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.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2014). Street Outreach Program: Data Collection Project Executive Summary..