It’s estimated between 500,000 and 2.8 million youth experience homelessness in the U.S. each year, and this number is on the rise. Estimates of the exact number of homeless youth vary greatly because no single source collects data regarding youth who are living without a guardian. However, studies attempting to quantify the problem of youth homelessness look at data collected by state agencies reporting the number of homeless youth who attend public schools, are reported missing, or are in foster care. While it may be impossible to know the exact number of youth in the United States who lack stable housing, the causes of youth homelessness are well documented.
The factors contributing to youth homelessness are wide-ranging and complex. For example, involvement with the foster care system or the juvenile justice system greatly increases a youth’s chances of becoming homeless. Some youth are kicked out of their homes by family members, while others run away to escape abusive or dysfunctional situations.
While it’s difficult to point to one factor as being the strongest predictor that a young adult will end up on the street, research has shown that the breakdown of the family plays an oversized role. Studies consistently show that youth homelessness often occurs as a result of brokenness in one’s family system. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 90 percent of runaway youth who lived in shelters reported that family conflict played a critical role in their becoming homeless. According to the Texas Network of Youth Services, “41 percent of young people attribute running away to poor relationships with their parents.”
If we are committed to addressing the issue of youth homelessness, then we must at the same time be committed to strengthening families. Efforts to strengthen the family require a holistic response from a diversity of institutions, and any program or service must address the complex family dynamics at hand.
As Christians, we know that the family is an institution created by God that serves as “a community of covenant love and trust, binding mother, father, and children.” The church is deeply involved in shepherding the growth and formation of the family.
In Matthew 22, Jesus says that after loving God, the next greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. The Bible also frequently discusses the importance of the family and the critical role parents play in society (Proverbs 11:29, Deuteronomy 5:16, Psalm 127:3-5, Proverbs 22:6). In order to uphold these values, the church must empower parents to raise their children well. Practically speaking, this means churches should offer support to parents in their congregations and communities through Bible studies, food drives, family picnics, and other events that cultivate fellowship.
At the same time, there are ways in which the government can uniquely support and strengthen the family. Family supportive policies can include things like the Child Tax Credit and paid family leave policies. However, the government can also partner with service providers who work directly with troubled families and youth in their community. These providers are often better positioned than the government to serve in this capacity, as they directly interact with their communities’ unique needs on a regular basis. There are thousands of service providers and programs throughout the country that offer parenting classes, financial literacy courses, vocational training, anger management, substance abuse rehabilitation, and more. Programs can also provide family therapy sessions for the youth and their parents, as well as connect parents to social networks that help to mitigate the recurrence of the problems that lead to family conflict.
One example of this type of service provider is Safe Families for Children, a national program that works to prevent homelessness in the first place. SFCC, which in some states receives government funding, utilizes the people and resources in local churches to “surround families in crisis with caring, compassionate community.” The program recognizes that in the past, parents in crisis could count on their extended family and neighbors for support. Today, however, many families are socially isolated. SFCC addresses this problem by connecting parents in crisis with host families and “family friends.”
Host family volunteers apply and go through a screening process. Families in crisis then sign up to be connected with one of these host families. The host family temporarily cares for the children of the parents in crisis, while the parents in crisis are free to take their children back home at any time. Other volunteers, called “family friends,” support the parents in crisis by providing moral support, job training, career advice, and many of the other non-child related needs of the parents. SFCC also trains “family coaches” to help facilitate the relationship between the host families and families in crisis.
SFCC began in 2003 and since has provided over 35,000 hosting arrangements for parents in crisis. Ninety-three percent of the children who go to one of the host homes are later reunited with their parents. The program has found such great success because it recognizes that a breakdown in the family leads to a myriad of societal problems, including homeless children. Connecting struggling parents with a network of relational and practical support helps prevent youth homelessness in a powerful way.
It is insufficient to talk about youth homelessness without talking about the family unit; it is equally insufficient to talk about the family unit without talking about the ways in which the church, the government, and service providers can help support struggling families. The Center for Public Justice’s Guide on Family states, “Healthy families help nurture future citizens, prepare future employers and employees, decrease public costs resulting from fragmented families, and build up strong social and cultural capital.” By empowering parents, all of these institutions can provide not just a physical home for displaced youth, but a stable family structure to ensure that children are equipped to enter adulthood and contribute to the vitality of their communities.
--Cristina Squiers graduated from SMU Dedman School of Law, where she served as Editor-in-chief of the SMU Law Review. She received a bachelor's degree in Anthropology and a certificate in Values and Public Life from Princeton University. Between college and law school, Cristina completed a fellowship in Philadelphia to start a mentoring program for those aging out of foster care. She currently works at an international law firm as a litigation associate.