Runaway and homeless youth are not bad kids; they’re just kids in bad situations. It’s important to remember this, because one of the great obstacles to stability these young people have to overcome is the stereotype that they are willfully homeless, or that their homelessness is simply a consequence of poor decision making. But we all know nothing is ever that simple. Consider the following:
- Approximately 1.7 million young people call the streets home every year.
- Children under 18 account for 34% of the homeless population in the United States.
- Every year, approximately 5,000 homeless young people will die because of assault, illness, or suicide while trying to survive.
- About 80% of homeless youth (aged 12-21) use drugs or alcohol as a means to self-medicate to deal with the traumatic experiences and abuse they face.
- Over 50% of young people in shelters and on the streets report that their parents told them to leave or knew they were leaving and didn’t care.
- Of youth who run away, 41% have been abandoned by their parents for at least 24 hours and 43% have been beaten by a caretaker
Young people become homeless for a variety of reasons, but the most common is family dysfunction. This can be anything from abuse to addiction to mental illness, all resulting in parental neglect, which forces some youth to fend for themselves – and in extreme cases to provide and care for their own parents and younger siblings. Imagine if you had to become the head of your household tomorrow; how long do you think you could sustain? Even families with little to no dysfunction are vulnerable to sudden homelessness, because they may be at the whims of the country’s economic climate – joblessness affects people from all walks of life, and families move into shelters by the hundreds every day, unable to find affordable housing.
Another reason youth sometimes leave their homes is sexual abuse. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 21-40% of homeless youth have been sexually abused prior to running away. And the victimization doesn’t necessarily stop there; many young people on the streets are too young for traditional employment and must resort to trading sex for money, food, clothing, or a place to stay. Similarly, some youth who “age out” of the Foster Care system are dumped into society with no economic or emotional supports, and often look to misdemeanor crimes to survive – either to temporarily get money, or to be put in jail where they will at least have a bed and a meal. Many homeless youth are then never able to transition into the workforce, let alone finish their high school diplomas, when the only earning potential they see for themselves is within the underground economy. This is part of the cycle that turns homeless youth into chronically homeless adults.
Below is a sample from a survey done by the National Network for Youth in 2013, which asked thousands of homeless young people nationwide to characterize the homeless youth experience based on their stories by offering insights that could complete the sentence, “I am a homeless youth. I…”
…am no different from other youth. I simply don’t have a safe place to live.
…may come from a poor family, or my family may have money.
…may come from a city. But I may also come from a rural town, suburb, Indian reservation, border colony, or foreign country.
…may have traveled miles from home, but I may also have traveled just a few blocks.
…sometimes act tough because that is a skill I developed to survive without a safe place to live. But, I know to behave differently if you give me positive attention.
…may have left on my own because it was safer for me to get out. But I also may have been kicked out of home because my family didn’t understand or accept me.
…may get caught up in the wrong crowd for self-protection. But I am not violent or a gang member. I’m just hanging on the street because I don’t have another place to go.
…usually just have too much stress and competing priorities to operate at the same pace as my peers with safe places to live. I am not dumb or unmotivated.
… need to take care of getting a safe place to live and a source of food and clean clothes before I can focus on finding a job or completing school.
… want to work to support myself. But I probably need some help building work skills and help finding a job, just like any other young person looking for a first job.
… want to wear clean clothes and take regular showers. If I look grungy, it’s because I don’t have regular access to these basic things.
…may use alcohol or drugs or have a mental illness. But if I do, it doesn’t mean that I don’t want to get help.
…can still take care of my own child and be a good parent but may need some help in learning how since I may not have had a good role model in my own childhood.
…may be reluctant to ask for help right away because I may not trust you. So please ask me first if I need help. And be patient while my trust in you strengthens.
…have dreams and goals. I can succeed in life despite the hardships I have faced.
…am not disposable. I am a human being. Be happy I am alive. I am the future.
Many of the things mentioned above are why organizations like Youth Outreach exist. We work to protect those who can’t always protect themselves, despite being incredibly resilient and strong. We have two programs to help youth who don’t have anywhere to stay, whether they’ve been kicked out, run away, or their family has become homeless. Safe Shelter is available to kids ages 11-17, and provides short term shelter with families in the community who’ve volunteered to be host homes. The Transitional Living Program (or TLP) is designed for youth ages 18-21 who need help getting started and learning to live independently. YO has two apartments located in Newberg and McMinnville where youth can stay while they look for a job and save some money. We also have programs that work to prevent youth from running away in the first place. Youth Outreach has a Drop-In center that is open until 9 pm on weeknights, where teens can find a safe and positive environment, with everything from peer support groups to Christmas parties. Youth can spend their time getting help with homework, learning about things like dating abuse, working with us to find a job, or just hanging out and playing pool as a way to stay out of the rain.
If you encounter someone who is in need of assistance, or ever find yourself in a tough spot, give a us a call. Anytime. Day or night. 1.866.538.8023. We can help!