Youth Homelessness Awareness Month: Challenging Harmful Stereotypes With Lived Experiences



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When you think of homelessness, what comes to mind? Many think of people sleeping on the street, or individuals walking by cars asking for money. While this might be the case for some individuals, it does not accurately reflect the population of those experiencing housing insecurity as a whole. In honor of National Youth Homelessness Awareness Month, I encourage you to join me in challenging the stereotypes and implicit biases that often surround the word “homeless” and join us in creating communities that uplift and empower every single person, no matter their housing status.


Youth homelessness is a prevalent issue in the United States. Chapin Hall's research on this issue reveals that 1 in 10 young people, ages 18 to 24, experience homelessness every year in the US. Additionally, it is estimated that over 4.2 million young people experience homelessness every year in the US. In Massachusetts, youth homelessness has been on the rise for the past six years. However, we recognize the difficulties of measuring youth homelessness due to its hidden nature. Many young people are categorized as engaging in hidden homelessness, such as couch-surfing, living in their cars, or doubling-up. Due to the transitory and hidden nature of youth homelessness, many researchers believe this is a vast undercount. This prevalence is due to many uncontrollable barriers that youth face in their key developmental years.


Were you aware that so many young people in the US face homelessness? Many of the young people who are facing housing insecurity experience this as a result of gaps and challenges navigating the systems that make up our society. This forces youth into unstable and unsafe situations that are out of their control.


Below, we’d like to highlight some of the many different reasons that young people face homelessness:


FOSTER CARE: An estimated 20 percent of young adults who are in foster care become homeless the moment they’re emancipated at the age of 18. Foster care is designed to give youth a place to live until they are adopted, reunited with their family, or emancipated at the age of 18. Sadly, much too often, youth are exiting the foster care system with no stable housing. Being unhoused only compounds other risk factors that foster care youth experience when aging out. HopeWell, a Massachusetts nonprofit, puts it succinctly:


“By age 26, only three to four percent of youth who aged out of foster care earn a college degree. One in five of these youth will become homeless after turning 18. Only half will obtain employment by 24.”


LGBTQ+ YOUTH: LGBTQ+ youth are at more than double the risk of homelessness compared to non-LGBTQ+ peers. LGBTQ+ youth make up 7% of the total youth population yet they represent over 40% of youth experiencing homelessness.


FAMILY POVERTY: Data from January 2022 suggests that 17% of children in the US are living in poverty. Poverty is inextricably linked with homelessness and negative developmental impacts on youth. It is often the main cause for youth being unable to graduate high school; this links back to housing insecurity as youth with less than a high school diploma or GED have a 346% higher risk of experiencing homelessness than youth who finished high school.


FLEEING UNSAFE SITUATIONS: It is another unfortunate fact that many youth are forced to flee home due to the high levels of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse and neglect they face in their home life. Many are forced to choose homelessness as the only way to escape these circumstances. A recent study reported that 90% of youth accessing youth shelters do so because they experience difficulties at home.


Were you aware of the different situations that youth come across that contribute to their housing instability? It is increasingly important that more people become aware of the variety of reasons, as it helps dispel the negative portrayal of homelessness in the media. Images that correlate homelessness with laziness or uncleanliness are harmful stereotypes that fail to accurately represent the struggles young adults experiencing homelessness face and make things such as obtaining employment increasingly more difficult.


Homelessness is often described as cyclical due to the intersectionality between the causes and conditions of homelessness, which make it hard to fully break out of housing instability. Consider this cycle with me: The Yale Law Journal points out that stable employment is one of the most important factors in ending homelessness yet stigmas and stereotypes make it extremely difficult: a survey conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless reported that 70.4% of homeless respondents “felt that they had been discriminated against [by private businesses] because of their housing status.” Job stability is crucial to saving enough money to secure stable housing, but discrimination for things such as not having a permanent address make accessing and obtaining employment opportunities a challenge.


There is an added layer to this cycle for young adults facing housing insecurity. Young people often do not have the support, coaching, or experience to find employment opportunities. David Ambroz, author of A Place Called Home, a personal memoir of his experience as a youth in foster care and experiencing homelessness, recently participated in a webinar hosted by Breaktime. As he pointed out: “Kids will be homeless unless we have healthy, happy families that are in communities not of poverty but of richness in all areas- opportunity, aspiration, and safety.”


Their successful transition into adulthood is hindered by these gaps. However, this is where Breaktime's services come in. Breaktime’s program creates supported employment opportunities, a model that has helped 77% of its graduates obtain stable housing and 83% secure stable employment and/or school.


WHAT YOU CAN DO


This November, Breaktime wants to encourage you to challenge yourself to grow, to empower, to uplift, to change, to observe, and to be a voice on the issue of youth homelessness. We encourage you to start conversations with your friends, family, and colleagues about the implicit biases that they may have associated with people facing homelessness. The narrative around homelessness needs to change and shift to the prioritization of people first, and we encourage you to be that change. This November, challenge yourself to make a difference for the millions of youth experiencing homelessness across the US.



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