June 1st, 2010

Number of homeless youth on the rise

The APA task force report on homelessness offered a sobering picture of homeless youth, noting that around 7.6 percent of young people ages 12-20 spend at least one night per year in a shelter. That statistic, though, is from 1998; in recent years – particularly given the downturn in the economy – the numbers of teens and young adults without homes appears to be growing.

For the 2008-2009 school year, the number of homeless youth enrolled in schools nationwide increased 17 percent. In Massachusetts, there are now around 12,000 homeless teenagers, of whom 5,000 are unaccompanied (meaning not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian), according to the state’s department of education.

The reasons for homelessness among youth are many: some have run away from home, while others, once they’ve reached 18, have aged out of foster care. The economy has also placed stress on some families, so that once kids turn 18, they may be told to find somewhere else to live, says Danielle Ferrier, LICSW, MBA, CEO of Rediscovery, Inc., a Waltham, Mass.-based program that offers services to youth in the foster care system.

“Sometimes, there are cultural feelings that kids who are 18 are adults and if they’re not contributing financially, [parents or guardians] can ask them to leave, because legally, they’re allowed to,” Ferrier adds.

Among the programs recently set up to help homeless students is YouthHarbors, a Rediscovery program based at Malden High School. YouthHarbors helps home-less students find and pay for temporary, stable housing until they find a permanent place. The program, which now includes 25 students, also connects students with job placement, tutoring and mental health services, and offers help with college applications and personal finance skills.

Though the YouthHarbors model is short-term at this point, Ferrier hopes it will expand to other communities, helping more homeless students to finish high school.

“When our kids don’t know each day where they’re going to sleep that night or where their next meal is going to come from, they naturally can’t focus on school work,” she says. “By helping kids graduate – and some are slated to go to college – you avoid a diversion in the road that can be troubling.”

In Rhode Island, which has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, the number of public school students with no permanent address jumped 43 percent between the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 school years to 746 students, according to that state’s department of education. Although teachers and school administrators have become more attuned to the problem of youth homelessness, identifying all homeless students is difficult, says Janet Pichardo, director of Family and Community Engagement with the Providence school district.

“Any number we come up with is inaccurate, because families aren’t knocking on the door to tell us they’re homeless. They’re embarrassed,” Pichardo says. Con-necting homeless families and students to services requires “building awareness and developing relationships.”

Students without homes may be given extra food at school, as school might be the only time that they know they will be able to eat. They might also be given clothes from clothing drives, albeit discreetly. “Any additional support schools can provide the family, that’s what we’re saying they should do,” Pichardo says.

Foster care, particularly when it involves multiple placements, seems to correlate to adult homelessness. The APA report notes studies have shown anywhere from 20-50 percent of adolescents and adults who are homeless have had a history of foster care placement.

“When children are in foster care, they often need to receive services, such as mental health services, that often go overlooked,” says Beryl Ann Cowan, J.D., Ph.D., a psychologist with Children’s Hospital Boston who has worked with homeless children. “Kids who go into foster care have often had rough experiences. Some children have experienced some kind of trauma; trauma derails kids if it’s not addressed.”

One part of the problem is that although adolescence has, in many ways, been prolonged, the law hasn’t kept up, notes Barbara Wauchope, Ph.D., director of evaluation and a research associate professor at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

“If you go back in time, people married at a younger age,” she says. “We’ve extended adolescence in terms of what the expectations are about certain ages, but the laws don’t reflect that.” While it’s harder today to find a job without a college degree, she adds, some 18-year-olds are expected to fend for themselves in securing a job and housing.

Wauchope recently conducted a study of homeless teens and young adults in New Hampshire, finding that around 1,000 teenagers and young adults are without a home. As with researchers in other states, Wauchope believes the real number is much higher; youngsters staying with friends or otherwise off the streets may not consider themselves homeless or seek out services.

Part of the solution involves providing adequate housing options, Wauchope says. “Adolescents of around 16 to 20 have a lot of needs that aren’t being met by the housing options available to them,” she says.

In New Hampshire, there’s no emergency housing for unaccompanied kids under 18, she adds.

“There’s this notion that housing is for families with little kids, or for adults,” she says.

Having more psychologists and mental health professionals engaged with the homeless would also help, says Wauchope.

“The mental health community often has not gotten very involved in homeless youth. There are often alcohol or drug issues and a lot of co-occuring disorders,” she says. “A lot of these kids really need mental health services and trauma support.”

By Ami Albernaz

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