For the past 15 years, November has been National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, spotlighting the 2.5 million youth struggling to tackle their day without the safety and security that comes from having a stable home life. Locally, Thurston County Public Health and Social Services (TCPHSS) understand that this is a growing problem facing local youth and rallies community partners to help.
Youth Homelessness in Washington and Beyond by the Numbers
TCPHSS’s Office of Housing and Homeless Prevention, reports that the number one reason identified as causing youth homelessness is family conflict; more than 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQIA+, (these persons are often rejected by their families which add to the physical and mental challenges that all homeless persons struggle with. Other reasons youth can become homeless include aging out of foster care, addiction, physical disabilities, intergenerational poverty, and more. Youth under the age of 17 cannot stay at any shelter without a caregiver or parent’s consent for longer than 72 hours, which means that when youth can’t or don’t want to return home or to foster care, they remain on the streets until they turn 18.
Government numbers have shown that youth of color make up 24% of youth accessing housing services. In rural areas, Native Americans make up 10% of youth accessing services but are generally only 5% of the population.
It is difficult to be sure what the amount of homeless youth is out there. An accurate count of homeless minors is challenging because of government definitions and guidelines. Each year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires a statewide count of all persons staying in temporary housing programs, like shelters. This year’s Point in Time (PIT) Count will be on Thursday, January 26, 2023.
When counting efforts happen many homeless youth are not counted because they don’t meet the federal HUD definition of ‘literally homeless’. Many youth prefer to stay with their peers, rather than stay at a shelter or they opt for ‘couch surfing’ which often results in an undercount of young people experiencing homelessness.
Finding Options for Homeless Youth is Difficult
Finding safe, adequate, available shelter and housing is a complicated task even for working adults. Now imagine trying to maneuver the system while you’re still a child. There are few shelter options for young people experiencing homelessness who are under 18 years old. There are some temporary sheltering options – like Crisis Residential Centers – however, many homeless youths may opt to not stay at CRCs due to mandatory reporting laws.
These laws require that if the individual is a runaway, for example, the parents, caregivers, and/or the state be contacted as to the young person’s whereabouts. This can be a barrier to those deciding whether to stay in a 12- to 17-year-old shelter, as their home may not be safe for them to return to. Others may not want to return to foster care if they are under the state’s custody, therefore, many young people opt to stay out on the streets.
Homeless youth face various obstacles with limited options. The stress, and instability of being homeless, combined with a lack of proper sleep and nutrition can equal trouble in school. For example some schools issue students Chromebooks for homework and access to school-related content online, however, homeless families often do not have easy access to the internet and cannot charge their Chromebooks or phones, which makes it impossible for students to complete their work at times. It has been shown that homeless students are twice as likely as non-homeless students to have to repeat a grade, be expelled, get suspended, or drop out of high school.
Overcoming Barriers to Success for Homeless Youth
Other struggles for homeless youth include a lack of proper identification – which is vital for accessing resources – and are at higher risk of experiencing trauma while on the streets. Some deal with mental health or addiction issues, past incarceration histories, lack of opportunities, discrimination, as well as additional challenges that present significant barriers to overcoming homelessness.
In Thurston County, TCPHSS contracts with Community Youth Services, Together!, the Family Support Center of South Sound, and the YWCA. The Office of Housing and Homeless Prevention also participates in the Anchor Community Initiative—A Way Home Washington which is an effort to end youth and young adult homelessness.
Community Youth Services runs a shelter for youth aged 12 to 17 called Haven House as well as a drop-in center and outreach program at Rosie’s Place. Their Young Adult Housing options also teach financial responsibility, independent living skills, and work to complete basic education. TOGETHER! offers host homes for kids still enrolled in school and Stonewall Youth and Olympia’s Pizza Klatch support LGBTQIA+ middle and high schoolers.
If you or someone you know is unhoused or in a difficult situation, call the Homeless Hotline at 844.628.7343. It is available 24 hours a day to those in need. There are also online resources including a cold weather shelter flyer and a What do I do if I need Housing? information hub. Find plenty of resources in conjunction with National Homeless Youth Awareness Month through the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Growing up is hard enough as it is. Let’s do what we can to support organizations that provide a stable, supportive future for homeless kids around us. Consider donating to Community Youth Services, TOGETHER!, the YWCA, or the Family Support Center this holiday season.