Beyond the Numbers: Understanding Youth Homelessness

Photo Credit: via Teen Feed website

Earlier this year, service providers, drop-in shelters, and other organizations working with at-risk youth opened their doors and broke out the pens and clipboards as part of the third annual Count Us In initiative—an attempt to better identify the number of homeless youth in our state.

In total, 776 unstably housed youth were counted across King County in 2013, representing a 13% increase from the previous year. Meanwhile, Columbia Legal Services recently analyzed data released from the state, finding that more than 26,000 Washington state school children were homeless during the 2010-2011 school year.

Together, the numbers paint a grim portrait of youth homelessness in Washington, but the numbers—as shocking as they are—tell only part of the story.

To find out more I sat down with Katelyn Stickel, Support Coordinator for Teen Feed’s Service Links for Youth program.

For the past 25 years, Teen Feed has worked tirelessly to build relationships and meet the basic needs of homeless youth and young adults in Seattle’s University District. Seven nights a week they serve hot, nutritious meals to about 60-70 youth, building trust and helping to connect them to the resources and services they need.

The reasons why youth end up on the street are long and varied, but talking to Katelyn it becomes immediately clear that the pervading stereotypes of youth as drug addicts or lazy are  myths that dehumanize the individuals who are experiencing homelessness.

To simply write off homeless youth as a product of their own bad decisions is too easy and ignores the larger picture, according to Stickel. “What we know is that we all make mistakes and choices that are not ideal. We’re all impacted differently depending on the privilege we to start out with and our access to resources,” she says. “If you’re a young person who grew up in poverty, or if you have mental health issues that are unresolved and there are a lack of resources in general, and you make a choice that is not ideal, you’re going to feel those consequences tenfold compared to someone with the privilege of a support system and resources.”

Often times, youth that do end up on the street are working through difficult problems, alone. Family crisis is the most common reason youth and young adults identify for becoming homeless. It is further estimated that 20-40% of homeless youth experience sexual abuse, 40-60% have experienced physical abuse, and 20-50% have been placed in foster care or an institutional setting at some point in their life.

From there, youth are expected to navigate the job market, establish a line of credit, take care of their basic needs—it is an onerous task under any circumstances. “Sometimes I think we ask homeless youth to do more than we expect of ourselves and more than we expect other youth at the same developmental level that are housed,” says Stickel.

In these situations, stability and support are critical. It’s a pattern that Stickel has seen time and again. Once in stable housing, youth can move from worrying about finding a safe place to sleep at night to focusing on school or finding a job. “If you add on mental health issues or chemical dependence issues, or you’re working through the healing process of childhood trauma, that kind of supportive housing is so important. You can give a young person the key to their own apartment and then they can start to deal with all the stuff that’s happening internally and externally,” she says.

Given the odds stacked against them and the paucity of services and funding available for youth, what does it take to truly break out of the cycle of homelessness? To Stickel, the answer doesn’t lie in a single policy, but rather through the engagement of the entire community. It requires a continuum of care stretching from concerned adults and service providers, all the way up to the legislators and policy makers who can provide the support that youth need:

“The relationship at Teen Feed starts at the meal, and it starts with every night eating with a young person and building a relationship and figuring out what they need, but that strong relationship, that rapport and trust that we have with a young person doesn’t mean much if at the end of the day there’s not policy and there’s not a system and there’s not housing and resources available to them. It takes engaging the entire community for a young person to break out of the cycle.”

You can help bring that change. On May 13th the legislature will begin a special session to hammer out a budget. If the current plan proposed in the Senate is enacted, state homelessness programs will be cut by 50%. The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance is working hard to organize advocacy efforts to preserve funding for essential services. To find out more, visit http://www.wliha.org/

To find out more about Teen Feed, you can visit their website. They are always looking for meal teams and advocates willing to sit, eat with youth, and build relationships.Basic need drives are also helpful. As the summer season approaches they are looking for items such as sunscreen, aloe, and backpacks to assemble into kits for youth as the weather heats up.

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