November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, a push to talk about this important issue nationally as well as in the District. In 2022 (the most recent fiscal year for which we have data), the District served nearly 2,000 young people, ranging from just 11 to 24 years old, who, without a parent or guardian, had been living on the street, in cars, or couch surfing, and unsure of where they would sleep from night to night. While the root causes of youth homelessness are complex and multifaceted, there are several clear and identifiable sources. The first step toward solving youth homelessness is understanding what produces it, and comparing our existing supports to what’s needed to address those issues. Broadly speaking, inadequate social safety nets are often rooted in racism, and many of the stressors that may push young people onto the street can be compounded by racism as well, so this analysis should have a racial equity lens. Based on that foundation, the Mayor and Council should fill in the gaps to provide an adequate safety net for young people facing these issues. The societal problems that contribute to youth becoming homeless include:
- Domestic violence – In DC, 40 percent of youth experiencing homelessness (without a parent or guardian) reported past experiences with domestic or intimate partner violence. Most of these youth reported that that violence led directly to their housing instability.
- Poverty – A national initiative found that youth from households earning less than $24,000 a year are 1.5 times more likely to experience homelessness than youth from higher-income households. Given the gap between minimum wage and housing costs, and the need for District officials to do more to ensure affordable housing options in DC, it’s no surprise that youth in low-income households would be more likely to face homelessness.
- Parenting without adequate support – That same study found that youth who are single parents are at least twice as likely to be homeless as single youth who are not parents.
- Racism – In 2022, 37 percent of all youth 18-24 in the District identified as Black, while making up 81% of the youth homeless population. A range of complex and interconnected forms of systemic discrimination help explain this overrepresentation, including the impact of historic oppression on intergenerational wealth and intergenerational trauma, historic and ongoing housing discrimination, over-policing, and more.
- Homophobia or transphobia – Some LGBTQIA+ youth experience violence or rejection from their families due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. In the 2022 Youth Count survey of District homeless youth, 32 percent of non-parenting youth identified as LGBTQ+ - including 7 percent who identified as transgender or as a gender other than male or female. Among parenting homeless youth, 14 percent identified as LGBTQIA+.
- Lack of adequate support transitioning from the foster care or juvenile justice system – In DC in 2022 nearly a quarter of homeless youth had prior child welfare involvement in DC, and similar percentages reported prior justice system involvement. Black children are overrepresented in both these systems, making this a racial justice issue as well. When youth with a history of involvement in various systems, such as the foster care system or the juvenile justice system, are disproportionately likely to experience homelessness, it’s clear that we need to do more to ensure that these systems are effectively serving the needs of these vulnerable populations.
Homelessness can be traumatic, as well as increasing the practical challenges youth have to overcome in order to thrive. Without understanding these challenges we can’t address them and therefore can’t get youth experiencing homelessness permanently housed. Young people may face:
- Assault - Since experiencing homelessness, more than two out of five youth have been victims of violence. Especially for those who became homeless due to violence this perpetuates a cycle of abuse that can further contribute to their homelessness.
- Barriers to employment - When we surveyed homeless youth about barriers to accessing existing workforce development programs, they highlighted challenges with transportation, child care availability (for young parents), having adequate attire and laundry facilities, having an adequate stipend to meet their needs while developing skills, balancing work and school, experiencing discrimination and harassment, and inadequate mental health support to deal with trauma triggered during employment. Unsurprisingly given those hurdles, in 2019 75% of pregnant or parenting youth and 69% of non-parenting youth experiencing homelessness reported no form of cash income. More recent numbers are similarly abysmal, but the data lacks details about employment for the majority of youth.
- Education barriers – Many of the same barriers to employment also complicate schooling. Education is a pathway to economic stability, however roughly half of youth experiencing homelessness do not have a high school diploma or GED.
- Policing - Young people without a home may be policed for sleeping in their car or for loitering in businesses or on the street. Furthermore, in order to survive, 17% of single unaccompanied youth and 16% of pregnant or parenting youth engaged in survival sex since being homeless or housing insecure (2019 Youth Count). Engaging in survival sex, in addition to increasing risks of physical violence and sexually transmitted diseases, may result in arrest or incarceration. Given that we know that District police are disproportionately likely to stop, search, and use force with Black youth already, the extra vulnerabilities of homelessness likely exacerbate the problem.
- Mental health challenges - The stress, instability, social isolation, and stigma of homelessness can exacerbate existing mental health challenges or lead to the development of new ones. Furthermore, many young people experiencing homelessness have preexisting mental health conditions. Whatever the origin, mental health challenges can make it even more of a struggle to maintain employment, housing, or relationships. Many youth who experience homelessness may turn to substance use as a way to cope with the stresses and challenges of their situation, which in turn can worsen mental health issues. In the 2022 Youth Count survey, one in three youth experiencing homelessness (without a parent or guardian) in the District reported impaired mental health.
Clearly youth homelessness is a complicated issue, and addressing it requires not only providing immediate shelter and support but addressing the underlying root causes. Some multi-faceted solutions could include:
- Increasing access to housing vouchers as well as expanding the supply of affordable housing to address the longer-term challenge facing even those who do get a housing voucher for a year or two.
- Direct cash assistance for youth experiencing homelessness so they have funds to help meet their basic needs while they chart a path forward.
- Targeted workforce development for youth experiencing homelessness, with connections to supportive services such as clothing and laundry resources, childcare, transportation stipends, etc., and connections to long-term jobs with livable wages.
- Expanded mental health supports that meet youth where they are.
In the coming months we’ll be publishing a report with much more detail about these recommendations and the state of youth homelessness in the District more broadly, including more information about existing services for those experiencing homelessness and what we can ask our leaders to do to help. Stay tuned.