Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Homeless Youth

When we think of the homeless population, many people envision single men, many middle aged or elderly, some with mental health needs or issues with substance abuse. This homeless population, however, is not a large percentage of the over all homeless and highly mobile population in the US. In fact, homeless women, children, and families are expanding rapidly. It is hard to fully understand the scope of the issues surrounding homelessness and it is easy to get overwhelmed.

There are over 20,000 youth in Minnesota each year that are homeless or highly mobile. These young people vary in age but are all under the age of 21. They come from all parts of the state, and from a very wide variety of backgrounds. Like any other group, there are trends among homeless youth, but you would not necessarily know them if you saw them at the mall, at school or at a community program. Many work and attend school despite the incredible difficulties encountered in each place. Many have the same kinds of hopes and dreams as any other youth you might meet or work with, but they all have enormous hurdles to face, and they all need support from their communities to successfully overcome those hurdles.

Youth can become homeless for any number of reasons but there are a few reasons we see frequently with this population. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender youth are much more likely than their straight peers to become homeless or highly mobile. Young people with untreated mental health issues are more likely than other youth to become homeless and face crisis situations. The foreclosure crisis has highlighted an issue of eviction and mobility, due to illness, debt or loss of job, which has been happening in the lives of many homeless and highly mobile youth throughout their lives. Well over half of homeless youth spent some of their childhood involved with various “systems.” These systems can include foster care, child protective services, juvenile detention, mental health or substance abuse treatment centers or group homes. Often, youth who have encountered one type of system have encountered more than one. Youth coming from these situations have moved frequently throughout their lives, adding to the current instability they face. The majority of homeless and highly mobile youth likely experienced abuse or conflict at home; for many young people home is simply not a safe place to be.

Some youth face one of the above issues and some face several. These are barriers that can seem insurmountable to an isolated young person bouncing from couch to couch or spending the week at a youth shelter. Community and social service support are especially important for these youth because they may not have any other adults in their life they can trust or depend on, and they may not have access to any other safe place to spend their time. This support can come from the work and leadership programs at Elpis, case management services at a drop-in center, attendance at independent living skills classes, or simply conversations about life and the future that take place at school or a community center. Regardless of where the conversation is taking place, or which trusted adult is having that conversation with a young person, the important point is that the conversation happens time and time again and that homeless youth are treated with the compassion, humor, lack of judgment and care that all youth deserve to be treated with. By Jennifer Lock