Parts of North America are experiencing an extreme cold snap right now, and one vulnerable group of people sits on the front lines: the homeless community, with shelters struggling to serve people who need a place to come in from the cold.
Unfortunately, that makes the timing of a study on youth homelessness very apt, as it highlights the extent of the problem for American children and teens at a moment when homeless people are dying on the streets due to the cold.
In any given year, about ten percent of US youth between the ages of 18 and 25, and one in 30 13 to 17-year-olds, experience some degree of homelessness. That may mean living on the street, relying on shelter services, couch surfing or other situations in which people don't have a home to call their own, and need help finding shelter.
This study originated with Chapin Hall, a youth policy organization at the University of Chicago. Researchers interviewed 26,000 people over a two-year period to get a better understanding of how many people are homeless, and why.
Many youth reported that they were kicked out of their homes, and LGBTQ youth were much more likely to be homeless. Youth of color, especially black and Latinx youth, are at high risk as well.
Educational attainment also played a contributing role. People without high school diplomas were more likely to report homelessness. Young parents also struggled with housing issues, highlighting yet another obstacle for people who have children at very young ages. Whether they're kicked out or can't afford housing that meets their needs, these families are left out in the cold. Abuse and neglect were also common factors in cases of homeless youth.
Many people think of chronic homelessness when they consider this issue, and often think specifically of people living out on the street. But researchers found that youth in the study tended to shift frequently between housing situations -- they might not necessarily be sleeping outside, but they are cycling between unstable places to sleep, which contributes to stress and makes it hard to stay in school or hold a job.
It also makes it harder to track these individuals, as traditional homeless survey and count tactics tend to focus on those living on the street or in shelters, passing over people with more nebulous situations.
The researchers note that it's critical for youth to have access to both housing and support services, and that these need to be tailored to the developmental needs of specific individuals. This is not a situation with a one-size-fits-all solution.
The researchers see the education, welfare and juvenile justice systems as effective points for intervention -- especially preventative intervention -- to identify at-risk individuals and help them find stable housing. They also comment that it's important to specifically service populations who are much more likely to experience homelessness, and to acknowledge that they may have needs that wouldn't be well served by generic care.
Additionally, researchers observed that though rural and urban homeless rates are quite similar, providing services in rural communities is more challenging because of the geographic distribution. A strategy for far-flung areas of the United States remains critically important.
At a time when some homeless communities feel under siege, this study should spark some thoughtful, fruitful discussion. If your own community is struggling with a homeless issue, consider approaching officials to have a conversation about the fact that the problem may be broader, and bigger, than they realize.
What kinds of programs does your community have for youth? Does your community have a system for identifying at-risk children and young adults and providing them with services? Are support services flexible enough to accommodate people with a range of needs?