Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Helping Homeless Youth Come In From the Cold

Each year, an estimated 380,000 youth under 18 experience homelessness. Some homeless youth have been thrown out of their homes by a parent or caregiver. Many have run away from their homes or foster care situations because of factors such as abuse, neglect and domestic violence. Older youth often find themselves on the streets after aging out of the foster care system at 18. Once out on the streets, youth are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Homeless youth are much more likely to become victims of crime, especially violent crimes. A study of homeless youth found that 76% had been victims of a crime in the previous 12 months, and that most homeless youth surveyed had been victims of violent crime-- far higher rates of crime victimization than those found among youth with housing. The study found that homeless youth of color and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are victimized at even higher rates than other homeless youth. 

The Importance of Data.
Serving the needs of homeless youth is made more challenging by the difficulty in getting an accurate count of how many young people don’t have a safe place to live. Reliable information about how many homeless youth there are and what they need is essential for effective service provision; however, it is very difficult for researchers to find homeless youth willing to talk to them, much less get a clear picture of their needs.  This month the Urban Institute released a new report on the Youth Count! Initiative, highlighting promising practices in getting an accurate count of the homeless youth population. 

According to the report, surveys that ask youth about their housing situation rather than just asking if they are homeless yield better data since homeless youth often rely on a range of strategies to find shelter, including ‘couch surfing’ with friends or relatives, staying in shelters, sleeping in abandoned buildings, cars or other places. Broader survey questions about housing stability also allow researchers to identify the related needs of homeless youth—not only their need for stable housing, but also other needs that cause or result in youth homelessness.

Understanding the needs of homeless youth requires engaging with organizations that provide services to this population since youth may be more willing to connect with trusted service providers. Methods such as hosting magnet events and utilizing social media were found to be effective in finding homeless youth to participate in surveys. Engagement with organizations that serve LGBTQ youth was found to be particularly important, as LGBTQ youth may be reluctant to share personal information about their housing situation, gender identity and sexual orientation. 

Research conducted by the Williams Institute suggests that about 40% of homeless youth receiving services identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. The leading cause of homelessness cited by LGBTQ youth is family rejection of their sexual orientation or gender identity resulting in youth running away or being forced to leave home by family members. Since research suggests that LGBTQ youth are both disproportionately likely to become homeless and more likely to be victimized while homeless, effective methods for assessing and serving the needs of LGBTQ youth is a key aspect of ending youth homelessness.

Trying to Survive is Not a Crime.

It is important to have an accurate count and assessment of the needs of youth with unstable housing; however, policies that encourage youth to reach out when they need help rather than further marginalizing them are also critical. Youth may resort to theft or other petty crimes to survive, and many trade ‘survival sex’ to meet basic needs such as food and shelter.  Homeless youth are often targeted by adults who offer them food and a place to stay and then coerce them into prostitution or other forms of exploitation. Homeless youth are frequently arrested for such survival crimes, including survivors of human trafficking. 

In many areas, even ‘acts of living’ such as sleeping, eating, sitting or panhandling in public places have been made illegal in an effort to drive homeless people from high-visibility public spaces.  Attempts to access or improvise clean drinking water or restroom facilities can lead to arrest. A report by a United Nations investigator found that homeless populations in the United States are often denied access to water and sanitation facilities in violation of international standards. Criminalizing such survival tactics makes it harder for youth to stay safe and meet their basic needs when they find themselves on the streets, and the fear of being arrested can discourage youth from seeking help.  A 2012 report from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness found that criminalizing acts of living through ‘zero tolerance’ approaches to homelessness are not effective and that “[c]ommunity residents, government agencies, businesses, and men and women who are experiencing homelessness are better served by solutions that do not marginalize people experiencing homelessness, but rather strike at the core factors contributing to homelessness.”

Strengthening Families and Supports for Youth.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), the key to addressing the core factors of homelessness is employing prevention and early intervention services for at-risk youth as early as possible. The NAEH highlights the importance of measures that strengthen families through counseling and resources so that youth have the support they need. Without such resources, factors such as family conflict, poverty, lack of affordable housing, inaccessible health care and systemic racism may result in youth being displaced from their families.

Ensuring that every child has a safe, permanent home is crucial, not just for reducing homelessness, but for ensuring their well-being. For young people aging-out of foster care, an effective support system is needed so that youth can access safe housing, health care, education opportunities and other supports.  A number of states including California, Illinois and the District of Columbia have extended foster care eligibility to age 21 in an attempt to ease this transition. Funded in part by the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, extended support is a positive step toward preventing youth from becoming homeless after aging out. A study found that Illinois foster youth were twice as likely to have attended college - and more than twice as likely to have completed at least one year of college by age 21- compared with former foster youth from neighboring states where eligibility ends at 18. Extended eligibility was also associated with delayed pregnancy, higher earnings, and a greater likelihood of receiving independent living services.

There are a number of interrelated factors that impact a child becoming homeless Addressing those factors in a comprehensive way through public policy is a critical part of addressing youth homelessness.  State policymakers can implement child welfare, health care, education and social safety net policies in their state that are more effective in preserving and strengthening families to ensure that children and youth have what they need to thrive. They can also strengthen laws and policies to prevent the criminalization and victimization of homeless young people and assist them in accessing the resources they need to survive homelessness and move forward as successful adults.

No comments:

Post a Comment