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Youth Homelessness is Hiding in Plain Sight

When you think of homelessness, what images come to mind?

Do you envision someone on the street asking for support? Do you imagine adults seeking aid at a shelter or sleeping in a tent, without anywhere else to go?

You might be surprised to learn that an overwhelming percentage of those experiencing homelessness are youth. On a single night in 2022, 30,090 unaccompanied youth—children and young adults without a parent or guardian—were reported to be experiencing homelessness. Of those, 91 percent were between the ages of 18 to 24. And despite the stereotypes typically associated with homelessness, the majority of youth homelessness doesn’t take place on the street – it hides in plain sight.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, nearly half of unaccompanied youth experience unsheltered homelessness—as in staying in a place not meant for human habitation. This might mean sleeping in a car or an abandoned building.

The most common form of unsheltered homelessness among young adults is couch-surfing, the act of continually moving from one temporary housing situation to another. In 2017, a Chapin Hall report on youth homelessness approximated that 1.75 million youth in the US were couch-surfing. This is a far cry from the 30,000 youth experiencing homelessness that were officially reported by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. As this disparity might suggest, standard measures often fail to capture the full extent of unsheltered youth homelessness, and many young adults experiencing homelessness go uncounted.

The non-traditional look of unsheltered youth homelessness reinforces barriers to understanding the problem and implementing effective solutions. Youth have been chronically underserved by services for individuals experiencing homelessness. Hidden from local and national homelessness counts and unaware of many community outreach efforts, young adults experiencing unsheltered homelessness may cycle through temporary housing situations with no prospects for a long-term solution. Moreover, according to interviews with young people here in Boston, many don’t want to be identified because of the shame associated with homelessness, worries of getting their families in trouble, or fears of being forced into the social services system. Being categorized as someone experiencing homelessness and in need of support can be challenging when mistrust and self-blame are palpable for youth. Until we collectively work to destroy the stigmas and misconceptions that have been established, it will be difficult to build the trust with young adults that is needed to fully engage them with homelessness interventions. Otherwise, youth experiencing “hidden” homelessness will remain isolated from efforts to support them, and feel constrained to shoulder the responsibility of building stability in their own lives.

Obtaining and maintaining employment, housing, and support systems can be a long and difficult process for young adults experiencing unsheltered homelessness. The burden of isolation, exacerbated by ongoing economic pressures, leads to the cycle of young adult homelessness. Rising rent costs, stagnant wages, and exorbitant upfront deposits during the housing process limit young people’s access to stable housing. Without stable housing, however, young adults struggle to achieve job security – an aspiration made even more difficult by biases against homelessness during the hiring process. To break the cycle of young adult homelessness, communities and government agencies need to work together to understand and rapidly alleviate the barriers to employment and long-term housing for youth experiencing housing insecurity.

The first step towards ending young adult homelessness is raising awareness. This November, you can join Breaktime in its National Youth Homelessness Awareness Month campaign – an opportunity to shine a light on the hidden homelessness in our communities and eliminate harmful stigmas and misconceptions. Leading conversations about homelessness with empathy, compassion, and understanding, Breaktime is planting seeds toward breaking the cycle across the country.

Now, when you hear the word “homelessness,” we hope you think of the young adults trying to work their way out of this vicious cycle, in a system already built against them, with little empathy and support. We hope you are inspired to take action to prevent all young adults from experiencing homelessness again. And we hope you share that passion with family, coworkers, and friends. It will take all of us to end young adult homelessness.

Learn what you can do for National Youth Homelessness Awareness Month here.

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