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!
Let me tell you some statistics so you understand the severity of youth homelessness in America.
- approximately 50,000 young people in the U.S. sleep on the streets for 6 months or more
- estimated 550,000 unaccompanied youth are homeless longer than one week
- 39% of the entire homeless population is under 18
- 1 in 7 young people will run away from home
- the average age a teen becomes homeless is 14 years
- teens 12-17 are more likely to become homeless than adults
- 50% of youth who are homeless said their parents either told them to leave, or knew that they were leaving and didn’t care
When we talk about homeless youth, we’re talking about young people age 24 and under, although most of them are about 14-17. A lot of kids become homeless when their families become homeless, but most of them are either kicked out or run away.
Youth run away or are homeless for several reasons. Sometimes it has something to with their involvement in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems. Many homeless kids were foster kids, but they aged out and were discharged with no housing or income support. Sometimes they are being physically, sexually, and/or emotionally abused at home and they eventually decide to leave. Sometimes there is some kind of severe family conflict going on, whether their parents are addicts, or abuse each other in front of the kids, or something else that’s unhealthy. Sometimes these youth are neglected or even abandoned by their parents.
Obviously, unaccompanied homeless youth are much more likely to get mixed up in bad things than other kids. Their experiences are also different than those of homeless kids who live with their families. Although those kids still have some tremendous issues and things to deal with, at least they have family by their side; unaccompanied youth are all on their own.
These kids, on their own and on the streets, are vulnerable to a range of awful, negative experiences, including exploitation and victimization. Because of their age and circumstances, they aren’t usually able to (legally) make enough money to meet their basic needs; so many, many homeless youth trade sex for money, clothing, and food. They also steal, and are much more likely to engage in criminal behavior and get involved in the juvenile justice system. They’re also often severely depressed, understandably so, and they drink and do drugs to mask the pain.
Homeless youth also have a hard time getting an education, because of the school system’s legal guardianship requirements, residency requirements, and requirements for proper records. Not to mention, sometimes kids just don’t have transportation to school. A lack of education certainly makes it harder for these kids to get on their feet and take care of themselves.
Isn’t it sickening when you think about it? Did you realize how many kids are homeless in our country, and not only how many are homeless, but how many are homeless BY THEMSELVES? Can you believe some of the circumstances these kids are in? Can you believe that a parent would kick their child out of their home, knowing that they have nowhere safe to go? Isn’t it awful imagining what they go through out there?
We cannot continue to allow this to happen to youth in our country. This is happening to far too many kids, and it shouldn’t be happening at all. We need more programs with emergency shelters available to young people. We need a health care plan designed specifically for homeless youth so their needs can be taken care of. We need programs that will help these youth regain stability, and especially programs with staff who are trained to break through their walls of fear and cynicism. We need to help these young people get an education, and help them find jobs so they can support themselves and gain skills they need to be successful. We need to educate our community so everyone is aware of what’s going on. We need to coach parents to be GOOD parents and take care of the needs of their children, rather than throwing them out on the streets and abandoning them. We need to take care of the children in our country.
Here at Youth Outreach in Newberg, Oregon, we offer a variety of services to runaway and homeless youth in Yamhill County.
- We have a Safe Shelter program, in which we offer emergency shelter for youth ages 11-17 who run away, are kicked out, are homeless, or maybe just need some time away from their parents. We have a 24 hour hotline the youth can call in case they need shelter after hours. We pick them up wherever they are, and take them to stay with a family in our community, where they’ll have a warm bed and food to eat.
- For youth ages 18-21, we have a Transitional Living Program for those who are homeless or kicked out. We set them up in an apartment for up to a year and a half (at no cost to them), and we help them find a job, save money, go to college if they’d like, and accomplish whatever other goals they have so they can be successful.
- We have a Street Outreach program that allows us to reach youth in our community. Every day, we send a team of three staff/volunteers out to tell youth about our services. We go downtown, to parks, and other places where youth often hang out. We carry a backpack full of food, toiletries, socks, and anything else a homeless youth may need.
- We recently started a Jobs Program. We have a Job Development Specialist who is available to help teens who need help finding a job, creating a resume, or practicing interview skills. She has monthly “Jobs Workshops” where she goes over different aspects of what it takes to get a job.
- In downtown Newberg, we have a Teen Drop-In Center that is designed to keep teens off the streets and in a safe, positive environment with adults who care. We have board games, video games, pool, fooseball, and other activities. We plan fun parties and events. We give the youth snack everyday after school, and have food bags available for homeless youth who come in. We have Study Hall twice a week, and offer free tutoring. We also offer peer support groups and prevention classes every month, and discuss things like safe dating, teen drinking, how to quit smoking, etc. Our drop-in center is open until 9 pm, giving teens a safe place to hang out even after dark.
The goal is to completely end youth homelessness by 2020. It’ll take a lot of work, but we need to get these kids out of danger and give them a better life.