They are the nation’s invisible homeless population, undercounted for years, hiding out in cars and abandoned buildings, in motels and on couches, often trading sex for a place to sleep. And now, for a complex variety of reasons, the number of youth — teens and young adults — living on the street appears to be growing.
San Diego saw a 39 percent jump in homeless youth over the past year. In Atlanta, the number of homeless youth in 2016 was estimated to be nearly triple that of previous years. After a concerted effort to count homeless young people, Seattle’s King County saw its numbers jump more than 700 percent between 2016 and 2017. And the number of homeless, unaccompanied public school students increased one-fifth between 2012 and 2015.
Young homeless people are at risk for a host of troubles with long-lasting impact, including substance abuse, mental health problems and physical abuse, as well as sexual exploitation. Many get caught up in the criminal justice system. Up to 40 percent of homeless youth are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
The federal government defines homeless youth as people under age 25 who are living without a parent or guardian. Activists, advocates, researchers and policymakers say it makes sense to think about homeless youth aged 12 to 24 as a group, even though some are just entering their teens and others are well on the path to adulthood. That’s because research has shown that young brains aren’t fully developed until around age 25, and youth don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions.
There’s no one reason for the rise in youth homelessness, said Naomi Smoot, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. Communities are just starting to get better data on homeless youth, which may be one reason for the increase. Then again, Smoot said, “it’s the drug crisis, it’s the economy, it’s the cost of housing, jobs being scarce.”
“As a result, growing numbers of young people are having to take care of themselves on the street at a very young age.”
Many communities are stepping up their efforts to deal with the problem. The idea is to intervene early, with services targeted toward the particular needs of young people — before homelessness becomes chronic, and it’s much harder to move them off the street.
In January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced $33 million in grants to 10 communities, including four rural ones, to combat youth homelessness. The money will go toward housing, from temporary to permanent, and to more creative approaches, such as “host homes” that place homeless teens with families that have been trained in dealing with young people who have suffered trauma.