Homeless Demographic Shifts to Youth

by | Oct 25, 2010 | Uncategorized

On any given night in Portland, Oregon, there are at least 1,500 homeless youth, and an estimated 1,000 in Seattle, Washington. These cities and also San Francisco, California, are particularly hard-hit, because they are all places that attract the young for cultural reasons.

The West Coast situation is, believe it or not, relatively good, because there is more of an effort to provide separate shelters for young people experiencing homelessness, rather than throwing them in with the adults, as is the custom in most American urban areas.

These are some of the conclusions drawn by Carol Smith, who writes for InvestigateWest, a nonprofit investigative journalism center. Anyone who holds a mental stereotype of people experiencing homelessness as a bunch of grizzled old bums is in for a surprise, because an awful lot of them are between the ages of 18 and 24.

How many? Around two million this year nationwide. It’s hard to be exact because by the time any kind of a count is performed and tallied up, and the results publicized, the national economy becomes even worse and the numbers are even larger.

Smith describes the day of a homeless youth as one of constant motion, always being encouraged to move along. At a 27-bed shelter called ROOTS in Seattle, executive director Kristine Cunningham told Smith how disheartening it is to keep turning away more and more young adults. You know how a military person will tell you that the very worst duty of all is notifying family members about a death? Shelter volunteers must have nightmares about having to say “No… Sorry… No room… Sorry…” as many times as they are forced to say it. Such horror is one of the founts of the social-worker burnout.

Sadly, too many young women see pregnancy as the answer. The very compassion that urges society to take care of mothers with young children turns out to contribute to the problem, when young women are so desperate they can’t even think straight, and are deluded enough to see this as a solution. Cunningham also spoke with Smith about that particular Catch-22:

For some of these young people, getting pregnant is perceived as a way out of homelessness. There’s a perception among young people on the street that if you’re about to give birth, you can get housing. ‘We’ve incentivized becoming pregnant,’ Cunningham said.

The thing is, being young and relatively healthy and relatively abled, youth are at the bottom of the list when need is assessed. Because, of course, the sick, the elderly, the disabled, and mothers with children are seen as having the most urgent need.

An able-bodied youth with no visible disabilities is the easiest person to dismiss with the time-honored instruction to “Get a job!” And a lot of them are thinking, “Whoa, what a brilliant idea! Get a job — why didn’t I think of that?” Sarcastically, of course. Because, where are the jobs? What jobs? As Richard R. Troxell reminds us, wage insufficiency knows no boundaries. The simple inability to make enough money to live on is destroying families at every level, and preventing families from being started, too, because the young can’t get enough economic traction to even think about establishing a home and being responsible for babies. Here is a statistic that Smith looked up:

In 2009, 80 percent of college graduates moved home after finishing school, according to job listing website Collegegrad.com…

Four out of five college graduates can’t find work, and wind up back in their parents’ refinished basement. And even if they can find a job, it probably doesn’t pay a living wage, just enough to throw Mom and Dad a couple of bucks for rent. (That’s “economic homelessness” — when you’re working and still can’t afford to rent an apartment.) If kids with an education have it that bad, what kind of hell are those other kids enduring, the ones with neither an education nor a family to fall back on?

Here is a very important insight that Smith obtained from Mark Putnam, a Washington State consultant on homeless issues. It’s a bizarre and sinister new twist to the famous “trickle-down theory.” In the homeless community, the only thing that trickles down is unemployment. Putnam says,

The 30-year-olds are taking jobs from 20-year-olds, because the 40-year-olds are taking the 30-year-olds’ jobs. These guys are truly employment victims of the recession.

Aside from college, where else are all these unemployed youth coming from? The System. Every year, about 20,000 kids “age out” of foster care. How and why they got put into foster care is another question that demands some pretty intensive investigation. But that is for another day. Here is today’s atrocity story:

The largest driver of the young adult homeless population is the foster-care system…
The majority of young people using the shelter system come from foster care.

This brings up one of the major tenets of Richard R. Troxell’s creed in his work to end homelessness: the conviction that no institution, no hospital, no military branch, no social service agency should ever turn a person loose to the streets. The avowed goal of every such institution must be, “Discharge no one into homelessness!”

Source: “Generation Homeless: The New Faces of an Old Problem,” AOL News, 10/19/10
Image by Franco Folini, used under its Creative Commons license.