By Heather Stergos
One of the least discussed issues surrounding homelessness in America is the epidemic of adolescents who are living on the streets and the dangers and difficulties they face. A study done in 2017 found that there are 3.5 million young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 who are homeless at some point during the course of a year, which is 1 out of every 10-young people. In addition to this staggering number the same study found that 700,000 minors between the ages of 13 and 17 experience homelessness at some point over the year, which is one out of every 30 adolescents.
Who are the young people at risk for becoming homeless? One of the largest at-risk groups is youth who do not have a high school diploma or a GED, due the relative impossibility of being hired for any type of legitimate work without one. Those young people who live in households that make under $24,000 a year are at higher risk of homelessness than those from higher income households. Those who are young and have children, those youth who are LGBTQ, Black or African-American and those youth who are Hispanic are the groups who are all considered to be at high risk for becoming homeless.
In the United States the most common form of human trafficking is sex trafficking, and homeless youth are at highest risk for being trafficked. Sex trafficking in the U.S. most often takes the form of online escort services, residential brothels, brothels disguised as massage businesses or spas and street prostitutions. Youth living on the streets are the primary targets of these traffickers. Why? Because no one notices when a homeless kid goes missing, and homeless kids tend to be lured easier. They have no connections, nothing to lose, are often alone and feeling unloved. Traffickers know this and work hard at playing on those factors. Putting homeless youth at greatest risk for trafficking.
Another issue facing homeless youth that may be surprising to know is that in terms of health, homeless youth are twice as likely to have a disability or illness compared to the rest of the population, including the elderly. The reason for this is that adolescents and those under 26 are still developing cognitively, psychologically and physically and the conditions faced when living on the streets have a detrimental affect on these still developing areas. In addition to this, young people tend to make choices that aren’t always in their best interest and for the homeless this can mean dangerous choices such as choosing to sleep in an isolated area which increases their risk of assault, taking alcohol or drugs, or associating with people who do not have good intentions. Additionally, homeless youth have often endured years of abuse or neglect before leaving their homes, and a large percentage of youth are already malnourished by the time they reach the streets, which can also have a catastrophic effect on still developing bodies. These young people have no access to healthcare on the streets, or at least very little, and the combination of higher risk and no healthcare leads to epidemic numbers of kids and young people living on the streets with significant psychological and physical injuries and illnesses that are not being treated, often resulting in long term damage or deficiencies.
We all hear about ways we can help the homeless in general – through donations to shelters, giving out bottles of water, etc. What forms of help to homeless youth need? The biggest way to help these young people is to make donations to programs that specifically work to help homeless youth and runaways. These programs need not only monetary donations but are also in need of tangible donations – water, blankets, medical supplies, hygiene supplies, etc. Another way to address the epidemic of homeless youth is to be a mentor in your community. Whether it is through coaching, volunteering with programs that work with at risk young people, volunteering as a tutor or by volunteering at a program or shelter that work with runaways, assisting them in rebuilding their lives, or, if you have a professional service to offer, such as legal or psychological services, offering some pro bono time to these programs. For most homeless youth, the horror they experience living on the street is better than the horror they left behind, but it is still not a way to live. These kids want a future, they have hopes and dreams and wishes like any other young person. Let’s all do our part to help them achieve a better life.
Covenant House. (2018). Homeless youth in America. Retrieved from: https://www.covenanthouse.org/homeless-teen-issues/healthcare