The women’s shelter looked like it was being held together with glue. It was one wing of a massive stone structure, tucked away from sight by trees despite its urban location. It was late summer, and I was thankful for the air conditioning as I met with and surveyed the young people residing in the shelter. She stood out to me immediately with her warm and vibrant smile. Her voice was soft and sweet as we spoke, the smile never faltering. Had we met at another time, in another capacity, we could have been fast and close friends. But in that moment, Jayla and I were not two strangers on the train or in a cafe who happened to strike up a conversation.
We sat side by side on a stiff couch that could have been ordered from a furniture catalog specializing in furnishing college dorms in the 1970s and talked through the survey I was administering. I learned she was a year older than me, had spent some time when she was younger in foster care, identified as “100%” attracted to people of her same sex, and was unsure whether or not she was currently pregnant. “I am waiting to take a test,” she disclosed. It was the only time in our conversation her smile faltered, but the moment was brief. There was a sense of acceptance. Whatever had happened, happened. The world kept turning. It was the past. In order to survive, she needed to remain present. Her smile and warmth returned, and our time together ended.
Samuel was twenty years old when I met him, and I was immediately curious by the way he carried himself. He had almost perfect posture except he rarely looked up from his lap. His shoulders were broad, his jaw square, and he had a voice deep. If I had passed him on the street, I might have mistaken him for a grown adult. He spoke infrequently, but passionately as he shared his thoughts or anecdotes from his life. Samuel entered foster care after a brief experience in the juvenile justice system. He bounced around group homes before he turned eighteen and decided that the only way he was going to get out was to enlist. He quickly realized that he was not well-suited for the army, but tried to persevere. Several months in, he was told he lacked certain necessary characteristics and was discharged. While awaiting exit, he was not allowed to use the phone or computer to make plans. When he was allowed to leave, he had nowhere to go.
Lydia grew up in a family that struggled to maintain stable housing. Her family often “doubled up” with other families, and she remembers moving around a lot. Occasionally the family would stay in a shelter, but Lydia hated them. They were dirty with rats running around at night, and the older men sometimes scared her. She does not remember a time in her life when her mother was not angry and tired, and it was common for her to take her frustration out on her four children. When Lydia was thirteen, her oldest sister was asked to go off on her own at the age of seventeen because the family could not afford to feed everyone. It was Lydia’s turn to leave at the age of sixteen. She joined her older sister, who had managed to find a car for them to sleep in.
When Lydia met Dan, she thought he was her savior. He was funny and sweet. Dan showed her the best places to get free meals and taught her which parks and transportation stations to avoid after dark. He even sometimes took her with him when a friend or relative would let him spend the night on their floor, if she was agreeable, at least. When she found out she was pregnant, she was worried but also excited because she was confident that Dan would make it alright. He didn’t. Lydia first tried to return to her sister, and then to her mother. Neither welcomed her back.
A hug is always exchanged when Nicholas is around. When we first met in a conference room with pale yellow peeling paint at a local community center, he was introduced to me as a passionate advocate and mentor. After a few moments of conversation, his infectious smile and laugh make you feel like you are with an old friend. Nicholas has a confidence about him that brings power to his testimony. As a young boy, he was witness to much violence in his home and community. When he came out as gay to his family, he became a victim of the violence. Still, the known fear of the mental, physical, and sexual violence at home seemed less frightening than living on the streets or in shelters. That choice was soon taken away from him when his father kicked him out. Nicholas slept in shelters when he could and in parks when he had no other option. He battled depression and post-traumatic stress. Additionally, the violence and exploitation did not stop: “Everyone wants something from you, and if it’s not cash, it’s sex.”
As a social worker, I am often invited into people’s lives at points of crisis. Our paths do not cross because of welcomed surprises or perfected social systems; we meet because of vulnerability, pain, and brokenness. At the time of our meeting, the help I embody is often their last resort. The role I play is difficult and taxing, to say the least, but it also is an honor. I am witness to deep pain and trauma. I am also present for the creation and arrival of hope.
The stories of Jayla, Samuel, Lydia, and Nicholas are full of hurt—and they are more common than most of us realize—but they do not have to be hopeless.
The term “unaccompanied youth” encompasses minors under 18 and young adults under the age of 25, including pregnant and parenting youth, who are experiencing homelessness. Once a year in late January, a 1-night count is conducted according to the standards set by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The Point-in-Time Count is an unduplicated 1-night count of both sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. On a single night in January 2016, there were 19,188 young people experiencing homelessness who were in sheltered locations for the night and 16,498 identified young people spending the night unsheltered throughout the United States. Because counting youth who experience homelessness presents unique difficulties, this data is widely considered an undercount by people working in the field.
Youth experience homelessness for a wide variety of reasons, but often there is a component of family conflict and/or various types of system involvement. Some of the public systems commonly overlapping with young people experiencing homelessness include child welfare and juvenile justice. Neglect or abuse in the home can result in a young person running away, or the public child welfare system moving the young person to a foster care placement where they age out at 18 or 21 into homelessness. The juvenile justice system also exits young people without the assurance that they have a safe and stable place to return to. Youth who identify as part of the LGBTQ community are vastly overrepresented in the population of homeless youth. It is not uncommon for these young people to experience homelessness as a result of being kicked out of their homes due to their sexuality. Family poverty can also result in older children being pushed out on their own in hopes that the family can continue to stay afloat with fewer dependents.
The existence of youth homelessness is not particularly new. Severe budget cuts to HUD under the Reagan administration led to the United States falling drastically behind in developing interventions to address housing instability and homelessness for all, including young people. It is only within the last decade that a commitment to ending and preventing youth homelessness has been made nationally.
A Public Justice Response
Caring for each other, including the young people in our communities, is not the isolated responsibility of any societal sphere. Creative solutions for social issues must be multi-dimensional, acknowledging the complex influences and streams of influence that shape the lives of people in different ways. Thus, ending and preventing youth homelessness—like any social issue—requires the engagement of both government and civil society.
Who is responsible for the people who have fallen through the wide cracks of the American Dream? We all are. Housing instability and homelessness may not be completely preventable in our world, but it can be made to be rare, brief, and non-recurring. Any solution that will adequately support this vision to create a more just society, specifically securing justice for the individuals and families most vulnerable in our communities, will require the involvement of academic, non-profit, faith-based, business, education, and government sectors. Robust funding through government grants and contracts, foundations, and private donations, collaborative support, physical space, volunteers, and research are all significant to the ability of communities to be able to end and prevent homelessness experienced by young people.
Currently, housing and policy responses include emergency shelter, rapid re-housing, and transitional housing with supportive services, preventative services focusing on family reunification and conflict resolution, foster care extension for 18-21 year-olds, and a push to create better discharge planning for young people in child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Localized, community entities (called Continuum of Care or Balance of State, depending on the structure) hold the responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the programs utilizing federal funding through HUD. State, county, city, and foundation funding are also critical to the implementation of these housing and practice responses. But a roof is not enough. Young people, like all people, need human connection and relationships. They need families.
As human beings, we do not exist and thrive in silos, isolated and detached from others. We were designed to be relational. Woven into the very fabric of creation, embedded into the core of what it means to be fully human, are healthy, dependable, and sustaining relationships. These relationships can and should provide the foundation for people to thrive physically, emotionally, and spiritually. However, family reunification is not always safe, healthy, and possible. But the absence of a family of origin does not equate to the absence of family and the support it offers altogether. When talking with young people, it is not uncommon for them to discuss their relationships with friends and mentors who have helped them navigate their housing instability and homelessness, even referring to these relationships as their family. Policies and programs should, in addition to facilitating family reunification when possible, encourage the development and maintenance of the healthy relationships that already exist within the lives of young people. As communities work to create systems of care for young people, it is important to recognize that these systems, no matter how well-intentioned or robust, cannot be a replacement for familial care.
There is no doubt that there are communities and service-providing organizations doing incredible work in this area. For example, the Philadelphia City Council allocated $700,000 for youth homelessness in 2016. In response, a collaborative of agencies including Valley Youth House, Covenant House PA, The Attic Youth Center, Youth Services Inc., and Pathways PA decided to work together by identifying each organization’s strengths. This collaboration enabled them to determine how to best utilize and apportion the funding internally to strengthen their ability to care for young people as a coordinated system.
However, much more needs to be done in Philadelphia and across the country. Underfunded organizations result in limited capacities and overworked staff that fail to meet the need in their communities. Additionally, there are other innovative models that should be utilized. One example that has been underway and developed in other countries, as well as in isolated communities throughout the United States, is host homes. Host home models are flexible, but at their core, they work when community members open their homes to homeless young people with supportive services provided by local service providers. Other promising models to address homelessness among young people, as well as resources and contacts, that individuals, organizations, and communities may find helpful can be found in the HUD Guidebook Series on Ending Youth Homelessness.
Working on the Frontlines
Because I know of the brokenness in our communities, I cannot be silent about the injustice of youth homelessness. And neither should you. We need to advocate to protect and enhance the funding of these programs and the service providers utilizing evidence-based practices and striving to help young people reach housing stability and sustain healthy relationships. We need to make the plight of these young people visible and place sustained pressure on churches, government, and ourselves to keep these young people at the forefront of our minds and hearts. We need to offer our abilities and gifts to further develop our communities to be places of welcome, safety, and protection for our young people.
My work is centered around the experiences of the people hurting and the most vulnerable in our communities. They are the individuals and families we often forget. In cities, we pretend we do not see them. In small towns, we believe they do not exist. Our failure to acknowledge and respect the inherent dignity and worth of every person is an insult to our Creator. And when we do this, we miss something significant: In the midst of the world’s brokenness, God’s grace and faithfulness persists. In the presence of deep pain, profound resiliency and strength can be found. I am honored to carry the stories of Jayla, Samuel, Lydia, and Nicholas; and now it is an honor and responsibility we share.
-Chelsea Maxwell recently earned her Master's of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice with a concentration in macro social work. While there she also interned at the City of Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services. Chelsea graduated from Dordt College in 2016 receiving a B.A. of social work with minors in sociology and political science.