Busting myths about youth homelessness
by Kate Harloe
Last week, as part of its Kids@Risk series, Crosscut hosted a discussion on “Myths About Youth Homelessness.” Expert panelists included (left to right) Friends of Youth CEO Terry Pottmeyer, Kristine Cunningham, executive director of ROOTS, Trai Williams and Jon Brumbach from The Mockingbird Society and Crosscut contributor Judy Lightfoot. It was a lively discussion.
Here, in no particular order, are a few of the homeless youth myths they busted.
Myth 1: Homeless youth run away for the thrill of it
Kristine Cunningham, who has worked with homeless youth off and on since 1996, confirmed that she has heard about kids whose parents would give them a ride to “the Ave, and they would just go slum it for a while.”
But the “cool” appeal of slumming it quickly wore off, said Cunningham said. “What would typically happen…is that members of the street community would say, ‘Hey, it’s not safe out here, you’ll get raped. You’ll get robbed. This is not for you.’”
“And what I noticed,” Cunningham continued, “is that the street community got really good at vetting itself: ‘What’s your story? Oh no, you can go home.’…They realized that there were only so many dumpsters, only so many shelters, only so many meal programs that they could live off of. They had to make sure that the people who were here didn’t have a better place to be.”
Many of them didn't. “A lot of people cannot imagine that this young person they’re walking past does not have a safe place to return to," said Cunningham. "But the sad data is that out of the 606 young people we saw at our shelter this year, I only got two calls from parents who I considered to be worth my time.”
Myth 2: Homeless youth are scruffy, smelly, criminals who couldn’t care less about their communities.
Trai Williams knows a little about homeless youth. She now works as a Senior Youth Network Representative with The Mockingbird Society, but Trai was homeless herself, off and on, for about 10 years. “I was one of those kids who smelled,” she says. “I smelled so I wouldn’t get tagged by rapists. I wore baggy clothes so that my female figure wouldn’t show.”
Trai Willams on dressing for the streets.
Predators aren’t going to “pimp out someone who smells or who doesn’t look right,” Williams continued, emphasizing that life on the streets isn’t so much a thrill as a strategic, high-stakes game of survival.
If the scruffy appearance of some homeless kids sends a message of indifference to their communities, it may be a learned indifference: “Monkey see, monkey do,” is how Trai Williams describes it. "Society always tells us, ‘you’re nothing but a homeless, smelly bum.’ So that’s the way you act.”
Trai Williams on which survival skills proved helpful in the mainstream world.
Friends of Youth CEO Terry Pottmeyer has run into this myth again and again, especially, she said, when Friends of Youth was trying to find a permanent location for its Eastside shelter. “That’s when I really confronted this assumption about the population we were serving head-on,” says Pottmeyer. “It was articulated very clearly, very loudly, by a very large group of people in a community meeting that they did not want to have criminals staying in their communities. And it was so hard to get them past that assumption.
“Years later we did open a short-term shelter on the Eastside,” she continues. “The community said this is great. We love what you’re doing. But not here. Someone should take care of them, but not us.’”
Myth 3: There are no homeless youth in suburbia.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Subject line: HOMELESS YOUTH SPEAK.
For more Kids@Risk coverage, co here. Video and photo by Alex Gamburg.