In February, researchers at The University of Hawai´i at Mánoa Center on the Family released the first comprehensive study of youth homelessness in the last three decades. The study, which looked at youths as young as 12 years old, confirmed anecdotal evidence that service providers have known for years: The earlier an individual becomes homeless, the more likely they are to be trapped in the cycle as an adult.
Here in Seattle, we know that’s the case. We know that while adult homelessness is on the rise, so too is youth homelessness. We know that the majority of homeless youths are from right here in the area, from all ZIP codes in the city of Seattle, and that they’re usually driven out by family crisis. We know that about one-third of youths who age out of foster care become homeless within a year.
We know that just building more housing won’t help the people who, from a very young age, have been the victims of any number of circumstances.
Homelessness at a young age intersects with a number of other tragic circumstances that befall young people, many of which co-occur.
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If there were a recipe for a homeless adult, it would be the exact factors that disproportionately impact LGBTQ kids and kids from marginalized racial groups.
The study from Hawai´i found that many homeless youths had first experienced homelessness with their families, and that the families of youths living on the streets were highly likely to be impacted by addiction and incarceration.
And, according to the study, “39.7 percent had interactions with foster care system and 48.3 percent with juvenile detention.”
That means that homeless youths are coming in contact with government systems and still not getting the help they need — and that the solution has to be systems that work to mitigate and reduce these risk factors before a young person becomes a homeless adult.
Homeless youths are coming in contact with government systems and still not getting the help they need
Here in King County, we’re seeing that switch, slowly but surely. By emphasizing restorative justice, rather than punitive incarceration, and finding ways to capitalize on the experiences young people have with government systems, our local officials are trying to course-correct.
The vast majority of homeless adults were, at one point, homeless youths. And after years and sometimes decades of living in unstable environments, in abusive situations, in unhealthy environments, a place to live is important — but a safety net and a path to healing is necessary.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice. View previous Access Denied columns.
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