There is an invisible crisis in our community – youth homelessness. Once you learn to see it, the stories are shockingly common.
Angie was abused at an early age. She grew up in foster care and at 17 was placed with an adoptive family – until she became pregnant. Then the adoption “fell through,” and Angie was sent to a group home with no treatment for her trauma. She ran away and gave birth to her baby boy while homeless. Her “boyfriend” was soon selling her so she could pay for food and shelter.
Heather’s first memory of sexual abuse was at 6. She endured the abuse for eight more years until she ran away. No one reported her missing; she spent the next four years trafficked and abused on the streets.
Then there’s Barry, kicked out of his foster home when he was found out to be gay. And boys like Timothy are too numerous to count: They grow up in family shelters with their mothers and are forced onto the street at age 17 because, as males, they are perceived as a risk to women in the program.
The national statistics are daunting.
A 2014 study found 34 percent of the homeless population is under 24. Of youth who reported being victims of trafficking, 48 percent said their first experience was due to seeking shelter, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Up to 35 percent of homeless young people were formerly in foster care, and up to 40 percent of homeless teens identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Eighty percent of homeless youth use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. Up to 40 percent of homeless youth report sexual abuse, compared to 3 percent of the general youth population. Up to 60 percent have experienced physical abuse.
LGBT homeless youth are victims of 7.4 times more acts of sexual violence than non-LGBT youth; 46 percent of LGBT teens report family rejection as a significant factor in their homelessness. Half of homeless youth do not finish high school, and 20 percent become pregnant . Finally, more than 5,000 homeless youth die yearly because of assault, illness or suicide.
At CHRIS Kids and Covenant House, we work for “unaccompanied” youth – a term that really means homeless and alone. In 2000, CHRIS Kids began providing services for homeless young people with targeted outreach to LGBT youth. Covenant House opened a drop-in center for homeless teens in downtown Atlanta.
Since then, our organizations have expanded, but it’s a challenge to keep pace with demand. Last year, our programs served 1,552 homeless youth, reached 1,301 teens on the street , and provided crisis shelter to 388 youth and housing to 152 more. Between us, we have 51 crisis beds, 88 permanent supportive housing beds, and nine apartments for parenting youth and their children.
Our beds are always full. Recently, a new organization, Lost and Found, opened its doors to serve LGBT homeless teens. Their beds are full as well.
What our homeless youth most need is a safe place to live and counseling and services to help them develop skills to be self-sufficient, healthy and employed. The community can work to increase awareness of this and advocate for funding that targets help for these kids so that they can turn their lives around — because they do, when we help them. We also need to conduct a targeted youth homeless count using a proven model.
Many of these steps are called for in an updated national action plan from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness: “Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.” You can find it here: http://usich.gov/opening_doors.
Programs like CHRIS Kids and Covenant House are the last barrier between a youth in crisis and homelessness, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, victimization, criminal justice involvement, chronic homelessness and even death. We need the community’s support to address this crisis. For information, please go to chriskids.org and covenanthousega.org.
Kathy Colbenson is chief executive officer of CHRIS Kids. Allison Ashe is executive director of Covenant House Georgia.