Homelessness is traumatic at any age. The streets are unstable, alienating, and insecure for anyone who must navigate a life on them, no matter how young or old.
Still, the streets affect populations differently. In our almost 40 years of work in downtown Seattle, we’ve noticed three major ways that the experiences of homeless and unstably housed youth (ages 13-24) differ from the experiences of homeless adults: causes of homelessness, lack of social support networks, and the long-term effects of homelessness.
1 | The Root Cause of Youth Homelessness
Multiple factors contribute to adult homelessness, such as economic instability, job loss, addiction, mental or physical disability. Most youth end up on the streets for one reason: family disruption.
Youth simply would not be on the streets if they were able to be at home safely.
Homeless youth often suffer mental, physical, or sexual abuse at home. Even if they are not abused, these youth typically face chaotic family situations, often with parents who suffer from addiction or substance abuse.
Some youth choose to leave home to escape the chaos and abuse. Others are placed in foster care. And some are even forced to leave by families that no longer want the responsibility of caring for them.
Foster care is no panacea. More than 30% of youth placed in foster care graduate from the system at age 18 with no money, no job, no safety net, and thus nowhere to go but the streets.
Nationally, more than one in four youth who come out to their parents as LGBT are kicked out of their homes. According to the 2016 Count Us In report, some 27% of homeless youth in Seattle identify as LGBTQ.
The effects of a failed family system
Many of the youth we meet at New Horizons have suffered some combination of these factors.
One young woman lived in nearly 30 homes after being taken from an abusive home and placed in foster care at age 5. When she aged out of the system at 18, she didn’t have the same training for adulthood a youth who’d grown up in one home with one or two caring parents might have received, yet she had no choice but to face life on her own.
Instead of a collection of valuable experiences gained through education, positive social relationships, group sports, arts programs, or other extracurriculars, as one might expect a “typical” 18-year-old to have, her life was a confusing amalgam of physical instability, psychiatrist visits, medications to manage the trauma of early childhood abuse, anxiety, and alienation.
Unfortunately, her story is not an anomaly. Very few youth are homeless because of their own choosing, victims to family systems that fail them, foster care systems that fail them, and streets that inadvertently become their home.
2 | Homeless Youth Tend to Lack Social Support Networks
None of us succeeds alone. We all need support from families, friends, teachers, and other supportive adults to grow up successfully. Homeless youth typically do not have these supports. They’ve lost not only their families, but also connections to schools, churches, jobs, and other community resources.
Based on our work, we’ve seen that youth require even more social support than an adult exiting homelessness because they are younger and have had less time (and likely, little opportunity) to cultivate emotional assets like self-esteem and perseverance.
Those familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs will know that these skills are a luxury only for those who have first procured more survival-based needs like food, water, and safety, all of which are constantly in question living on the streets.
Addiction and transience increase alienation
Even if they have established support systems, youth may resort to using substances as a survival tool (e.g., to stay awake at night to avoid assault; or conversely, to sleep all day to avoid the stressors of being on the streets) and become addicted. As addiction worsens, it may strain or sever the few relationships a young person has.
Services offered through Drop-In centers can assist youth with basic needs like food, showers, and clothing, while also providing a space for youth to cultivate positive relationships with case managers and volunteers.
Still, with few connections to a home or social network, youth may further the alienation of homelessness by becoming increasingly transient, often traveling to new cities where they have no relational history or context. With no positive relationships to provide love, care, guidance, and emotional safety, youth are much more likely to stay on the streets as they seek other methods of self-soothing.
3 | The Opportunity to Minimize Long-Term Negative Effects of Homelessness
Finally, less time spent on the streets is less time to be permanently negatively affected by them.
If given access to the proper resources to exit the streets, a youth will suffer fewer long-term effects of homelessness than an adult who has been homeless for an extended period of time.
Homeless youth, like young people who leave home for the first time to go to college, are at a stage of their lives where they need the space for self-expression and the structure in which to figure out who they are.
We have observed that, when given structure and support (like that of our transitional housing program, The Nest), youth tend to exit the streets into employment and housing at very high rates.
The Nest gives youth the physical stability they need to focus on other needs, like finding work and permanent housing. Dignifying them with responsibility through chore assignments increases a sense of self-worth and appreciation for the space in which they live, while requiring a small fee for rent teaches them to manage their finances in an environment where it’s safe to fail.
Helping youth exit the streets quickly benefits the larger community
Research has shown that homeless or runaway youth are 50% less likely to have a high school diploma or GED, are prone to weaker health over their lifetime, and are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested as adults than their stably housed peers.
This means that quickly assisting youth off the streets increases their ability to contribute positively to society and decreases long-term welfare costs. For example, transitional housing and care centers like New Horizons have a much lesser impact on tax-payers than necessarily robust juvenile detention centers and prisons.
Generally, when compared to homeless adults, homeless youth are much more likely to become successful and independent when connected to critical resources by minimizing their time on the streets and the streets’ negative, lasting effects on a young person’s life.
This article does not aim to suggest or minimize the necessary work many organizations and individuals are doing to help homeless adults off of the streets. We are proud to be among several organizations in Seattle working to help all individuals suffering from the cruelty of life on the streets.
To read more about youth homelessness, its causes, and potential solutions, we recommend the resources used for the information in this article:
Improving Outcomes for Homeless Youth – Social Issue Report
What Works to End Youth Homelessness – National Network for Youth