We've all seen them. They sprawl in groups of three or four on the sidewalks outside Seattle's downtown businesses, maybe with a big dog curled beside them. Their multiple piercings, tattoos and shaven heads make them look savage, and layers of shapeless clothing make them appear bigger than they really are. Smoking, grunting at each other, refusing to meet our eyes (most of us look away anyhow), homeless youth seem determined to hold us at a sardonic distance even as their scrawled cardboard signs beg us for help.
When a young relative of mine was homeless for a year, I realized how much of this is a masquerade. In some ways it's similar to the grownup facades assumed by American adolescents anywhere, except there's more at stake on the streets. A homeless youngster looks tough to ward off exploitation and assault.
Understandably, building effective programs for these youth is very different from working with homeless adults and families. Besides shelter, teens and twentysomethings left on their own need programs that will patiently break through their fear and cynicism while drawing on their natural vigor and hunger for independence, and that will provide the tools necessary for achieving healthy self-sufficiency. "The great thing about these kids," says Melinda Giovengo, YouthCare executive director, "is if you build it, they will come."
Last week’s National Alliance to End Homelessness conference in Seattle featured dozens of successful programs across the U.S. The best give homeless youth a meaningful role in program planning. They build on the innate tendency of adolescents to bond with small groups that feel like surrogate families, and teach group members to encourage each other in behaviors that will lead to a better life. Successful programs also ensure that LGBT kids — who represent 20 to 40 percent of homeless youngsters, but just 4 to 10 percent of youth in general — feel welcome.
Estimating the number of homeless unaccompanied youth (12-17) and young adults (18-25) is difficult because they often hide their plight from adults who may be predatory or punitive. In King County, 4,000 to 5,000 young people are homeless at one time or another each year. The January 24, 2013, count of unaccompanied youngsters in the county who lacked shelter or were staying in emergency shelters, or who were about to lose their temporary lodgings, totaled 776. The Seattle Police Department has estimated that there are 500 to 2,000 homeless youth in Seattle on any given night.
How do we best deal with these kinds of numbers? Here are five ideas from the conference that seemed especially interesting, as well as thrifty.
1. Preventing youth homelessness and reuniting families: Kids are less likely to leave home in the first place if they get along with their parents. Cocoon House teaches parenting skills to adults wanting better relationships with their children ages 13 to 17. Coaching is done through confidential phone consultations, support groups and in-home family counseling. Outreach staff reconnect runaway children with their parents when it looks as if strategic help can improve family dynamics. Speedy staff footwork on the streets is critical because, as one conference-goer said, “Pimps and drug dealers do amazing outreach.”
Prevention and reconnection have the added benefit of reducing demands on more costly services. Of course, returning youth to abusive homes is never desirable, and reunions with families are almost never feasible for those who have aged out of foster care at 18. The latter group represents more than 10 percent of the homeless youth population and typically spends two to four years on the streets. See Crosscut's recent article about the personal and community effects of aging out of foster care.
2. Ensuring education and employment opportunities: YouthCare connects homeless kids with adults who teach them the academic and job skills needed for future self-sufficiency. Many youngsters in the program secure internships in real-world fields such as construction, food service and computer technology. All participating youth are paid for their time. Program costs are kept low through volunteer support and partnerships with businesses, private foundations, other nonprofits and faith communities.
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