As summer fades and fall weather reminds us that winter and the holiday season is just around the corner, most of us are going to parties, planning warm, cozy gatherings with family and friends and thinking about what presents we’re going to buy for our loved ones. But for homeless youth, those under the age of 18 who lack parental, foster or institutional care, the holiday season can be a nightmare.
Experts disagree about the exact number of homeless youth because they can be difficult to identify and count. High school students, in particular, often try to hide their homelessness and stay under the radar because they feel embarrassed. However, in its most recent report about this population, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention of the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that there are 1.6 million homeless and runaway youth in this country. Most are between the ages of 15-17 years old . They are equally divided between males and females. About a third are black and studies show that almost half identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender (LGBT). LBGT youth are at particular risk of homelessness because they are so often rejected by their families, schools and communities. But regardless of who they are, on any night, in any season– including Christmas– these young people are sleeping on our streets, in public places or abandoned buildings, in emergency shelters or prevailing on the kindness of friends or strangers, for a bed.
There are a lot of reasons why young people end up homeless. Some leave home after years of neglect, physical and sexual abuse, strained family relationships, the addiction of family members and family economic problems. Youth can also become homeless when they are discharged from foster care or other institutional settings with no housing or income support. As if this situation isn’t bad enough, organizations that focus on homeless youth say the problem is getting worse. The National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) reports that between 2007 and the 2011-2012 school year, homelessness among students of all grades, rose 72 percent. The National Runaway Safeline, (NRS), a nonprofit communication system for runaway and homeless youth, says that since 2009 they have seen a 25 percent increase in crisis contacts from homeless youth. According to Keven Ryan, president of Covenant House, the largest privately funded charity in the country providing services to homeless youth, all 16 Covenant House shelters across the country are seeing more youth seeking shelter and a bed. ” We are rolling out cots to accommodate kids,” he says. “Kids are competing with each other for bed space.”
Why should we care about homeless young people during our holiday festivities? Because the consequences for these young people, and for society generally, are so devastating. Homeless youth are at a higher risk for physical abuse, sexual exploitation, involvement in the justice system, dropping out of school, mental health disabilities, substance abuse and even death. Approximately 5,000 homeless youth die every year due to assault, illness and suicide. Youth homelessness and its consequences are not just problems for those involved, but for society in general and the cost to society is high. States spend approximately $5.7 billion each year to incarcerate youth for a non-violent offense such as homelessness. Further, the problems and barriers these youth face, clearly hinder their ability to become contributing, successful members of their families and society. If we don’t help them while they are young, they may well become tomorrow’s chronically homeless adults.