Data on youth homelessness is notoriously lacking. We need better data to understand the scale of the problem and our progress toward solving it.
Data on youth homelessness is notoriously lacking. However, we estimate that around 550,000 youth under the age of 25 are homeless and on their own at some point each year. Most of these young people will experience brief episodes of homelessness. Others will experience longer episodes of homelessness and require more significant support.
While it’s still unclear whether youth who identify as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender) experience episodes of homelessness that are substantially different than their heterosexually-identified counterparts, a preponderance of the evidence clearly indicates that LGBT youth are over-represented in the homeless youth population. A small sampling of recent community-wide surveys of homeless youth in Houston, King County, Hollywood, and Minnesota found that LGB youth ranged from 12 percent to 35 percent of the overall homeless youth populations, while transgender youth ranged from 1 percent to 7 percent of the homeless youth population.
Homeless youth require sustained support to reconnect to family and establish the skills they need to live independently and make the transition to successful adulthood. That’s why the primary solution to the problem of youth homelessness is Family Intervention, i.e. providing support to help youth reunite with their families and helping them develop stronger, healthier relationships with family members. There is clear evidence that helping youth repair their connections with family is associated with a myriad of positive and healthier outcomes for youth.
When reunification is not possible – youth need help preparing for more independent living, like longer-term housing and support services including help to foster connections to caring adults. Most of all, we need to do something about the lack of safe shelter options for young people in order to improve the safety and well-being of homeless youth. Regularly youth in need of shelter are left to fend for themselves on city streets, forcing them to stay in very precarious settings where they are vulnerable to exploitation.
A citywide survey of Los Angeles students found that LGBT youth who experienced homelessness were three times as likely to stay in the home of a stranger, and twice as likely to stay in abandoned building than their heterosexual homeless peers.
We need to develop an effective Crisis Intervention response to youth homelessness that prevents any youth from having to experience a single night on the street due to a lack of capacity. We also need better data so that we know the true scale of the problem and can measure our progress toward solving it.
Sharon McDonald is Director for Families and Youth at the National Alliance to End Homelessness where she focuses on policy and program strategies to end family and youth homelessness. Prior to joining the Alliance, Sharon was a direct service practitioner in Richmond, Virginia. She served as a social worker and program director in a seven day a week, community-based service center for people who are homeless. She has also provided and supervised social work services in a service-enriched housing program for low-income families with children. Sharon served as a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)/National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Congressional Fellow in Senator Paul D. Wellstone’s office where she focused on welfare and housing issues. Sharon holds an MSW and a Ph.D. in Social Work and Social Policy from Virginia Commonwealth University.
This blog post originally appeared on the National Alliance to End Homelessness website.