Each year more than 1 million people, between 14 and 24 years old, experience homelessness for a week or longer. Many of the reasons that teenagers find themselves homeless include:
- adult substance abuse
- adult mental illness
- domestic violence
- identifying as LGBTQ
Some youth may find themselves exiting from or aging out of foster care or juvenile justice systems and hence, without necessary transition services, experience homelessness. It is fairly easy to recognize an adult on the streets as you go about your busy day, who may be experiencing homelessness, but youth are often difficult to spot. These youth find themselves on their own with no means of support-cut off- from any assurance of basic needs getting met from day to day.
Assistance is truly scarce out there. If you listen to formerly homeless youth, detail their experiences, maybe the things that we take for granted as everyone’s reality, would become more concrete. It begins to sink in that these ‘children’ are out in the world alone, literally. Male and female, teenagers, cannot be left to fend for themselves without adult supports and basic needs provided them.
We think about those students who attend school everyday, and they just don’t seem to be there, fully engaged. Grades may slip, behavior problems develop, they sleep in class, their clothes are visibly unclean. What do we do as educators charged with the comprehensive development of these children? They are largely in the age group, where attendance is mandatory. So, they try to show up.
Are we really paying attention? In this society, children, school aged and under the age of 18, are not expected to care for themselves without adult supervision, without a bed, a roof, lights, food, clean clothes, even hygienic products. Yet, we mindlessly stand before a classroom filled with students, whether they are black or brown or poor, and appear to ignore a child’s plight.
We chastise, discipline, belittle, or shake our heads at someone’s child, who at least finds his or her way to school in the first place. We watch grades deteriorate, and yet, that child can go ‘home’, wherever that may be for that day or night, and assign extra, ‘make-up’ assignments, to be completed in class or at home. But, do we ask ourselves where that child calls home, or if there is an actual home? Is it a subway car, an abandoned building, an alleyway, an alternative and equally unstable and unsafe environment?
Is it a friend’s house tonight, and an aunt’s house tomorrow? Can they actually concentrate on an assignment when they are food insecure, are in places so frightening that they actually are afraid to close their eyes to get a good night’s restful sleep? Are they parents or are they parenting their own siblings, or parenting a parent?
These youth usually only need housing for a short period of time. They need jobs, job training, education, to be taught life skills, to do budgets, and be shown how to cook and clean so they can earn a living wage to pay their bills.
All young people who have experienced homelessness have experienced trauma before and while they are homeless. A lot are sexually assaulted or are sex or labor trafficked while they are homeless. If a child runs away at around 15 or 16, and they have no source of money, for food, housing, clothes, what do we reasonably believe that they will do to survive? Become prey to underworld activities and engage in activities which make them vulnerable to the sex trafficking trades, if they survive.
Then, there’s always a life in and out of the judicial system, jails, detention centers, and then what do we suppose their life chances are for survival as adults will be? If they make it to become fully mature adults, that is. But until then, these youth comprise the “invisible homeless”, unless we find it in our hearts and politics to provide proactive supports for families, and their children, before it gets too late,…and the children disappear into the night on their own on the streets of America. And we call ourselves the Land of the free, and the home of the brave!”
These youth are the quintessentially brave and they are brave without a home! Invisible to the adults who all, every one of us, say they care about ALL children! Is it us or is it them who need help? As we ponder that question, think about the millions of teenagers who are living on the streets in this country, and go by everyday unnoticed, unsupported and unprotected! These vulnerable youth ARE the most brave of us all! It is our move to say something, and do something to protect these young people, today and for the future, so we can be a part of their, our solution! The future is now.