A couple of weeks ago, I attended a survivor speaker event put on by the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance. First a staff member gave the audience a framework in which to think about homelessness and those who are impacted. Then we heard from two young adults who experienced homelessness as part of their youth. Listening to their stories, what they endured, and the strength and resilience they displayed was such a powerful event.
I think one of the best points that both young women made was how each of them talked about how they initially denied that they were experiencing homelessness. They commented how they had ideas of who was homeless and what those individuals were supposed to look like. I think that many people have similar perceptions and stereotypes about the causes of homelessness and who is impacted. The truth is that many individuals are at risk for homelessness whether because of a natural disaster, an unforeseen expense (like medical care), or other major life events that drains the savings a family may have or leave them unable to afford their current living arrangements.
We also know that violence can be a huge precipitating factor for homelessness. Sometimes people flee their abusive partners and might not have any where to go or may end up bouncing from friend to friend while looking for more stable options. Sometimes after a sexual assault from a stranger, friend, or acquaintance, people are afraid to return to their home because the perpetrator knows where they live. These people are then also forced to either find shelter, alternative housing, or temporarily live with friends and family. None of these options are optimal and oftentimes creates additional risk or vulnerability.
One of the speakers commented on how important her mother was during this time in order for her to make it through the experience of homelessness. She commented how her mother’s strength and ability to advocate for the family made her realize that she could also be strong through the situation. However, not all young people have their parents or other supportive adults to help them through these situations. The second young woman became homeless after her mother’s debilitating physical condition had used up much of the family resources and her father had committed suicide. The mother was able to stay in a nursing home but this left the young woman homeless and alone at the age of 15. She was able to bounce around between friends and their parents for a place to sleep but never had a solid place to call home, to study, and to be a regular teenager. She commented on how being homeless exacerbated and created mental health issues for her.
Both women talked about how relying on the shelter system was extremely stressful and took time away from addressing other needs that could have helped to pull them out of homelessness. Many shelters operate on a per-night basis meaning that individuals and all their belongings must be gone in the morning and you must win a ‘lottery’ each day in order to be able to sleep at the homeless shelter the following evening. One of the turning points for the second young woman was being accepted into Bridge over Trouble Waters transitional living program which gave her a continuous space to stay for up to 6 months so that she could focus on other aspects of life: basic needs, getting a job, addressing mental health needs, etc.
Our awareness of unaccompanied homeless youth is growing and we are realizing that the resources that currently exist are not enough to provide adequate services to them. In the state of MA, it is estimated that more than 6,000 students are experiencing homelessness without the support of a parent or legal guardian.
The impacts that homelessness can create on these youth are numerous and long-lasting. Without a safe and secure place to continuously rely on, it is increasingly difficult for youth to focus on school and academics. This may result in poor performance or grades or perhaps the youth will completely drop out of school altogether. The options that these individuals would have had they stayed in school (college, scholarships, jobs, friends, extracurriculars, etc) are completely out of grasp because of their living situation.
Youth who are alone are more likely to be exploited or sexually abused. Frequently youth are trading sex in exchange for a place to live. Youth can also be forced to choose between living in an abusive relationship/environment or sleeping on the street. While they may not want to stay in the relationship they may choose to do so in order to avoid the unknown violence or experience of staying on the street.
Youth experience homelessness for a variety of reasons. One of the speakers exemplified how life circumstances can leave a youth with no parents or caregivers to look over them. Other youth are trying to escape violent home or foster care situations. Others are thrown out of their homes when they come out as LGBTQ to their families.
Regardless of the reason, the current housing options and supportive services are not enough to handle the number of unaccompanied youth who are currently homeless. Many services are not able to serve unaccompanied youth which places further stress on the few that do. But there is something that we can do!
On July 16th, House Bill 135 will be presented at the State House in Boston (Room B2 1pm for those who want to come!). This bill will provide funding and allow providers in Massachusetts to offer the kinds of services to unaccompanied youth that will assist in ending the cycle of homelessness.
Join many youth homelessness advocates that day (State House, Room B2, 1pm). If you can’t join us then contact your legislator and ask them to convey their support of the bill to the Conference Committee. You can find your representative’s contact information here: www.wheredoivotema.com
WRITTEN BY: Stacey