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Youth Homelessness: A Social Analysis of the Dilemma

November 2021
By Carolyn Strudwick

“Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.” – Isabel Wilkerson

In honor of November’s Homeless Youth Awareness Month, we give recognition to all the courageous, resilient young people who pass through the Streetwork Project’s doors. They give us the privilege to share and bear witness to their everyday lives. As we say in Streetwork’s mission statement, you are on the streets but not of the streets.

When working with homeless young people, we make every effort to let them know that they are not at fault for the situations they are in. We have inherited a system that was intentionally designed to grant access and opportunity to only a few — leaving many young people disenfranchised. As a community, we strongly believe it is our responsibility to work collaboratively to end this social dilemma called youth homelessness.

We also recognize how important it is that we understand youth homelessness is not just a temporary passing problem, but an endemic that has lingered for far too long. In this blog post, I will provide an in-depth analysis to explore and understand the root causes of youth homelessness and how we can help put an end to it.

Youth Homelessness and Structural Racism are Inextricably Linked

In a report published by the National Conference of State Legislators, it was estimated that “4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness of which 700,000 are not accompanied by a parent of legal guardian. Approximately 41,000 young people between the ages of 13 to 25 are homeless and unaccompanied on any given night.” Some may ask, Why in one of the richest industrialized nations there exist a problem parallel to that of developing countries? History has shown us how institutional and structural racism has played a significant role in shaping the very fabric of American society. The answer to this important question it’s critical we use a racial justice lens and look at how racism has served as the catalyst in the design of our social and economic structures to perpetuate this cycle of social violence inflicted upon our most vulnerable youth.

Studies of youth homelessness across cities in America have identified some key elements clearly be linked to ongoing injustices that only serve to marginalize certain groups while maintaining the status quo. Factors include belonging to certain ethnic minority and socially marginalized groups, intergenerational poverty, substandard education, and lack of access to resources towards health and emotional well-being.

Studies have shown that in American society, youth from ethnic minority groups are far more likely to experience homelessness.

When we look at the demographics of homelessness amongst youth, Black and Hispanic youth were found to be far more at risk for homelessness in which 83% of homeless youth identified as Black or African American and 85% higher risk of being homeless. We see this in our own demographics as young men of color make up 85% of Streetwork’s male clients. These statistics are no surprise as we know many young men of color in American society face major challenges and obstacles as they are far more likely to grow up in poverty compared to their white counterparts. In addition, many young men of color also live in a society in which they encounter negative social stereotypes about themselves through “social and cultural perspectives, institutions, and systems within the larger society.” We see this no more evident than in the areas of Mass Incarceration in which black males make up35% of the US prison population even though they only make up 10% of the population. In areas of research around “School to Prison Pipeline,” it has been noted that black boys learning, and social styles have been misunderstood which results in them being misconstrued as problematic often placing them at a disadvantage towards achieving higher outcomes.

Youth Homelessness and Wealth Disparity

Ethnic minority groups are far more likely to experience multidimensional poverty thus limiting their chances of achieving better social outcomes. We have seen in the history of the United States where past and present barriers, have obstructed the accumulation of wealth for blacks and other ethnic minority groups. A report from the Center of Poverty & Inequality UC Davis, states that “Much of the variation in adult income in the United States is related to family background during childhood. One-third to one-half of children who are poor for a substantial part of their childhood will be poor as adults.” Data on child poverty in the United States, reveal 39% African American and 33% Latino children and adolescents are living in poverty which is more than double the poverty rate of their White counterparts. This trend in fact transcends into adulthood as many of these young people reported an annual household income of less than $24,000 and were found 162% more likely to be homeless.

Youth Homelessness and Education

Regarding education amongst homeless youth, it was noted that young people with less than a high school diploma or GED are 346% at greater risk. Studies have shown that while there had been some shifts throughout, there remain some gaps when looking at outcomes in education between minority and white American youth. This is attributed to the fact that the socio-economic realities that continue to exist for many minorities youth, put them at a far greater disadvantage. African Americans and Latino youth are more likely to attend “high poverty schools”. According to a report in American Psychological Association on Ethnic & Racial Minorities Socio-Economic Status, “high-achieving African American students may be exposed to less rigorous curriculums, attend schools with fewer resources, and have teachers who expect less of them academically than they expect of similarly situated Caucasian students (Azzam, 2008).”

Youth Homelessness Prevalence in LGBTQ+ Community

Research on LGBTQ+ youth amongst the homeless youth population demonstrates that a significant percentage make up this group at around an average of 45% and are at 120% higher risk for being homeless than their heterosexual counterparts. Streetwork’s data also shows a similar number to the nationwide statistics as 45% of our youth identify as LGBTQ+. This nationwide data also shows the intersections between being of an ethnic minority group and LGBTQ+ as increasing chances of experiencing homelessness as Black and Native American youth are overrepresented in this group.

In a recent study from 350 homeless youth providers across the country, it was found that there were four main causes for homelessness amongst LGBTQ+ youth:

  1. Family rejection
  2. Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse
  3. Aging out of child welfare
  4. Financial and emotional neglect

Our current social structures are not equipped to address these hard truths and oftentimes they do more harm. This is seen through the passing of legislation that serves to deny basic human rights from housing, employment to marriage adds to the disenfranchisement of LGBTQ+ citizens.

Youth Homelessness and Health

The experience of homelessness on young people often results in poor behavioral and health outcomes. Estimates point to 42% to 82% of homeless youth have a diagnosable mental illness which includes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mood disorder, anxiety, and substance use. Access to quality health care to effectively address the needs of these young people are often obstructed by institutional barriers such as no access to insurance, inability to navigate an already complex system, racial bias in the healthcare system, and overall low-quality healthcare based on geography and neighborhood. These result in the avoidance of treatment and care which ultimately result in declining physical health.

Incorporating Social Justice Work in Streetwork Project

As we have seen from data provided along with the barriers and challenges that have prevailed mainly for historically marginalized groups, the functions of systemic and institutional racism, continue to be a driving force in the dire conditions that continue to plague or young people. As our Vision Statement mentions; “Safe Horizon envisions a society free of violence and abuse. We will lead the way by empowering victims and survivors to find safety, support, connection, and hope.” Given this, we have taken a strong commitment towards incorporating a social justice approach in our work. The liberation of all from violence and abuse is an essential component in service to our communities. This involves a process of engaging in an ongoing analysis of self and community and accountability to the youth we serve. We will continue to participate in efforts towards dismantling harmful structures as we strive towards healing, empowerment, and the achievement of social and economic justice.

“We in the developed world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even. Many people may rightly say, “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now. And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands.” – Isabel Wilkerson