Are you at home reading this? Are you curled up with your phone on your warm couch with a cozy blanket and your cute cat (or pup) snuggled up next to you? Are you sitting at your kitchen table or your new makeshift home office, sipping your lukewarm coffee because you forgot to drink it when it was actually hot? We are living through a collective experience that is made more palatable for some by the simple fact that we have safe places to sleep, work, parent, cry, worry, zoom, wear sweatpants, binge watch Netflix, learn TikTok (is that how it works?), and move through other pandemic-related activities with some sense of comfort.
Having a home is something many Americans are extremely grateful for at this particular moment in time. I cannot imagine the idea of not having stability right now. And by stability, I mean, if I don’t sleep at least 7 hours every night, with a sound machine, a fan on, and a TV on with no volume, I’m useless the next day. Homelessness is more than just not having a home, especially for young people. It’s not having a routine. It’s not being able to engage in our own little idiosyncrasies when we need them (no matter whether our partners approve or not). It’s not having a couch and a cat, or a coffee-maker for that matter.
Homelessness is linked to disconnection from family and others; it’s not having our people who help us calm down when we’re stressed, who pick up our kids because we’re stuck on a zoom meeting, who buy an extra pack of toilet paper because they know we didn’t plan ahead, who loan us money to get our car fixed, who lead us to our dream job because their friend is in HR there, who help us plan our next semester in college because we’re too tired to choose anthropology over statistics.
At the YMCA Youth & Family Services, we’ve listened to young people about WHY they became homeless, about WHAT they need to feel safe and secure, about HOW they want to live and thrive as adults, and about WHAT we can do better to help get them where THEY want to be. We’ve also dug into the evidence base surrounding this issue and contributed our own research to the field.
Here’s what we know:
- Young people become unstably housed mainly due to family conflict and dysfunction. Many young people were in foster care or were never referred to the child welfare system for more support as minors. Many tolerated heinous abuse and neglect and were forced to make a choice to exist within an unsafe family unit or unsafely alone on the street. Many young people have experienced significant loss that contributes to housing instability; one study found that 35% of homeless youth experienced the death of at least one parent or primary caregiver. We also know that family-based prevention services that interrupt a youth’s journey into instability are promising.
- Disproportionality is present and growing. More than 50% of young people experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ and have experienced family rejection and conflict because of who they are. Young Black and African American men experience housing instability at greater rates than their white and Latinx peers. BIPOC youth are overrepresented among those experiencing housing instability in every study conducted- this must change and more must be learned and implemented to support these youth and prevent further trauma in adulthood.
- Young people experiencing homelessness are persistent and resilient. They have survived the un-survivable, equipping them with the tools to persevere through extremely stressful situations. This experience also makes them less likely to reach out for help or trust systems that have failed them over and over again. Our solutions must acknowledge this distrust and create relationally responsive environments where young people feel safe, supported, and cared for. Individual counseling and treatment are also paramount in beginning a young person’s healing. This is necessary to reduce high-risk behavior, reduce substance use, and improve emotional and physical well-being.
- Diverse housing options are needed for young people; there’s no one-size-fits-all. Some young people will be successful with rental assistance for a few months. Others need a safe and supportive environment with access to mental health support day or night. Some young people need support for three or four years, while others will say good-bye in six months. All of these scenarios are okay. We must meet young people where they are if we’re to help them get where they deserve to be.
- Housing alone will not change their trajectories. Young people need emotional and social supports to continue to develop the skills necessary to function in complex environments. These are self-regulation skills (also known as Executive Functioning skills) and they’re very responsive to intervention, especially during the adolescent and young adulthood years. Chronic stress causes these skills to be underdeveloped or for high-risk skills to develop in their place. Lack of responsive, warm relationships also causes these skills to develop more slowly. We need other humans to help our brains stay calm and in control of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Additionally, supports related to education, economic stability and mobility, career-planning, independent living, and other navigation services are extremely effective when paired with structural housing supports.
- Young people experiencing homelessness need a troop of supporters in their corner. They need organic supports in the form of relationships in all domains of life; peers, family, coaches, teachers/professors, and friends are all important to help provide the emotional, financial, professional, spiritual, and social guidance needed to thrive in adulthood. Further, these relationships persist long after our services end, and can often replace expensive programs and services in the long-term.
November is National Runaway and Homeless Youth Prevention month and the YMCA Youth & Family Services will use this moment to help garner support for the policies, systems, supports, and community change that is needed to make progress toward real solutions to end homeless experiences among young people in our County.
Please join us in supporting resilient young people so that they can find the warm and supportive environments they need to grow, thrive, and share their gifts with our vibrant communities.
In 2019, we secured a 25 unit apartment building in Escondido. We're working diligently to renovate each and every unit to create dignified and beautiful spaces for young people to call home. Interested in making an impact? Learn more.
Worth the Investment
Read the story of one man's journey to escape the intergenerational poverty he was born into and why these young people are worth the investment.