By: April Carthorn, RHYTTAC General Specialist, National Safe Place Network
Homelessness is not a choice. Too often a young person’s decision to leave home is the healthiest (and only) option available to them. Some have no choice as they are forced from their homes at the hands of their guardians. Many flee because of issues such as family conflict, sexual orientation, poverty, abuse and neglect, while others may become entangled in substance abuse, gangs, and addiction problems.
Once a young person is homeless, it is very difficult to transition out. Age restrictions prevent many youth from accessing housing / shelters thus making it hard for them to connect with services to help end their homelessness. Transitioning youth also face barriers when trying to get their own housing. Paying rent and bills is virtually impossible with a part-time minimum wage job and many landlords will not rent to youth. Therefore, many youth are forced to remain hidden or move to the streets.
Without proper housing, food, and support systems, the health of a youth experiencing homelessness is at risk. Homeless youth have higher rates of HIV and other STIs and face a greater risk for developing anxiety and depression as compared to housed youth. It is difficult to grow into a healthy adult when you’re unhealthy, poorly nourished, and stressed.
While this paints a bleak picture, we can prevent youth homelessness by making sure young people know where to turn when their home is not safe. Most youth at risk of being homeless leave difficult home situations or age out of foster care to find themselves without a safe sanctuary, something we all need and appreciate. Everyone likes to come home and close the door behind them and feel safe. Many at-risk youth and young adults do not have this opportunity.
While most youth are resilient and want to move forward, there are a number of barriers for someone who is unprepared to be independent. Most youth who have aged out of care or have had to leave home lack experience in independence and therefore need a helping hand up. Searching for safe accommodations can be complicated, stressful, and hopeless if the youth / young adult is suffering from mental health concerns such as depression, stress disorders, substance abuse, and a history of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse.
What You Can Do To Help Avoid the Sparks:
Many youth / young adults ages 18-24 tend to take increased risk to figure out which career, educational, and financial path they want to pursue. Being a supportive ally can help foster a positive transition into adulthood and provide young people a chance to explore opportunities, develop financial independence, and create healthy, lifelong relationships.
- Empower youth to make decisions. Youth / young adults have often been left out of critical decisions made about their lives. It is important to allow the young person take charge of his or her own future while you listen, help guide, and support. During daily interactions, provide youth with frequent opportunities to make decisions and to learn from consequences, both positive and negative.
- Communicate high expectations. Far too often, youth / young adults have heard more about their limitations than about what they can achieve. Send positive messages about future possibilities. Offer forward-looking comments into everyday conversation. For example, use phrases such as “when you go on to college…” or “when you start your own business…” as opposed to phrases like “if you go to college.”
- Start early. Find ways to introduce important concepts to younger youth. For example, talk with a pre-teens about the value of education and saving for long-term goals.
- Decrease control and increase youth responsibilities gradually. While allowing youth to make choices, be clear about boundaries. Involve youth in setting rules and establishing appropriate consequences related to their behavior. Allow young people to learn and practice adult life skills with your support.
- Help to identify at least one reliable, caring adult in a young person’s life who can serve as a stable, ongoing connection and can provide support pre-and-post-transition into adulthood.
- Encourage the development of positive peer support networks through participation in constructive group activities with others who share similar likes and experiences.
- Be an effective coach who listens, advises, and provides youth / young adults with opportunities to learn and practice new skills. Do not shoot down their ideas.
- Advocate for youth rights as they relate to employment, housing, education, medical and mental health care, court proceedings, and social needs.
- Remind young people of their responsibilities related to self commitment, citizenship, character, and fairness and generosity toward others.
- Recognize successes and celebrate ALL achievements and milestones on the path to adulthood.