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Jon Brumbach, from The Mockingbird Society, was quick to dispel this common misconception: Homeless youth, he assured the audience, come from “every area: urban, suburb, rural. They are from, literally, every zip code.”
Suburbanites “think we don’t have homeless kids, because they don’t see it,” added Terry Pottmeyer. "[Homelessness] is something you might expect in a dense, urban community.” Not in Kirkland or Redmond or Bellevue. And therein lies the myth.
Friends of Youth asks the homeless kids it serves to provide a zip code as part of its regular intake process. Some give the zip from where they grew up, others from where they slept the night before. Of the 498 kids who provided zip codes, 49 listed Redmond, 39 used Kirkland and 27 gave Bellevue. (169 kids listed Seattle zips.)
The notion that there are no homeless kids in suburbia is a corollary to the assumption that poverty is a root cause of homelessness. Which is another myth, notes Pottmeyer: “The Number One reason we see [for youth homelessness] is dysfunction — family conflict at home.”
Myth 4: The majority of homeless kids are white and straight and have never been in foster care.
After countering that African-American, LGBTQ and foster kids make up almost 70 percent of the homeless youth population, Jon Brumbach attempted to explain why each of those groups might be so over-represented. "Identifying as LGBTQ: in a lot of families that results in being kicked out on the streets. There are also issues of poverty…that is a stepping stone to homelessness. And foster care – when you are growing up and moving from house to house, you have no sense of stability, no sense of control."
Kristine Cunningham shared her experience with the so-called disproportionality. At the ROOTS shelter, "young people of color show up five times" more frequently than what census data would predict, said Cunningham. "Why is that happening? That’s really one of the reasons we’ve gotten into anti-racism work."
Cunningham shared some personal observations from her time as a Big Sister to a six-year-old African-American girl. “By the time she reached junior high she had more [school] suspensions than the Brooklyn Bridge,” recalled Cunningham, who remembers how teachers and other school professionals always treated her, a white woman, with a respect and deference they never showed her Little Sister's African-American mother. "We’ve created these pipelines [to homelessness] that are deeper than poverty,” she says.
So what can we do?
There wasn’t time to explore all the myths about youth homelessness. But panelists and audience members did spend a little time discussing action. What steps could be taken to reduce the number of youth on the streets? How should we spend our energy and dollars? More shelters? More affordable housing?
“Jobs,” said Trai Williams, without hesitation. “[Jobs] would give [homeless youth] self-respect. If you just give them housing, now they have housing but they don’t know how to keep it."
Imparting life skills is important too. "They might not know how to write a check," Williams continued. "They might not know that they have to pay taxes." These details are all part of the basic skill set "that will help homeless kids survive in the mainstream world."
Crosscut’s Judy Lightfoot got the last word. She spoke of writing about homeless youth and the people and organizations that serve them, and about the power of storytelling as a tool to shape understanding: “The real challenge [in telling these stories] isn’t about individual words," said Lightfoot. "It’s about how language shapes our perceptions of what we see.”
We believe in the power of stories. Stories told by Crosscut writers. Stories told by homeless youth themselves. If you have a story, please share it with us by emailing it to email@example.com. Subject line: HOMELESS YOUTH SPEAK.
For more Kids@Risk coverage, co here. Video and photo by Alex Gamburg.
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