The Challenge of Homeless Youth

We've made huge strides forward with ending homelessness for our veterans and that makes me happy. We've constructed new facilities in Hampton Roads to address homelessness for adults and families as we should have. But even though the population of teens and young adults who are homeless is smaller than the adult populations, it still doesn't seem much smaller than it was five years ago, especially if you spend much time on the streets in Virginia Beach.

Groups like Stand Up For Kids and Seton Youth Shelters do street outreach on a regular basis and they are not seeing a decline. In some key ways, it's like we are giving up the fight here. While Seton Youth Shelters does admirable work with short term housing for youth under 18, the over 18 population (the difference being a day, in many cases) has few good options.

Part of the problem of course is that while youth become homeless for some of the same reasons that adults do (mental health or substance abuse issues). They too become homeless because they live off of part-time, minimum wage jobs that are precarious at best, and are often a health emergency, a car breakdown, or a payday loan out of control away from losing their shelter and becoming homeless. 

But young adults also become homeless for reasons that are unique to their age and preparation or lack of preparation for adult life. Youth become homeless because of abusive family situations, dysfunctional family situations, or when the family breaks down in ways that youth no longer have a place. Youth become homeless when families reject a youth's sexual orientation or identity. Youth become homeless when their families are not in a position to continue supporting them and they are woefully uneducated and unprepared fro adult life. Youth become homeless because they age out in incarceration with nothing waiting for them on the outside. When youth who have never worked (through no choice of their own) are shoved into the world of work with neither hard nor soft skills, homelessness is often the outcome.

The problem is also compounded by young people themselves. They often reject help, especially if it seems to come with strings attached. Many prefer the freedom of homelessness, at least for awhile, when it's warm and street life seems liberating. Many find and form tighter "family" units than they ever experienced with biological families. The love and the loyalty behind those impromptu family units is often strong enough to keep a group of your people homeless out of fear that if they all seek help they will be separated. A rape, a robbery, a beating, or a cold, wet, hungry night alone may make a youth rethink their position, but coming in or reconnecting is complicated.

That's where we come in. Anyone who has done street outreach for youth will tell you that you can't make someone come in off of the street unit they are ready. But once they are ready, we, as a caring community should be working hard to make it as uncomplicated and inviting as possible. I've been engaged in this work for a short time compared to some, but after six years, it is embarrassing that we still don't have a streamlined system of intake designed to actually support a youth who wants to stop being homeless. There are certainly programs to provide emergency respite, but we fail miserable at the slow, difficult work of reconnecting a youth to adult life, society and work.

It's long past time that we did better.


Tom Crockett