The Pandemic You Know, and The One You Don’t: Vulnerable Youth in The Crisis

As voices everywhere speak about “our common experience of suffering” during the COVID-19 pandemic, we risk obscuring the struggles of our already marginalized young people — youth who are homeless, those being trafficked, and those involved in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. 

For those youth and young adults, the pandemic preys on their pre-existing conditions of trauma, victimization and pervasive insecurity.

As the executive director of California Coalition for Youth (CCY) and director of Youth Engagement for the California Children’s Trust, I’ve heard directly from many youth who are struggling now more than ever. 

What I’m seeing is hard. And I know hard. 

When I was 14 years old, I was homeless for months and spent my childhood and whole adolescent life in and out of foster care. I remember the daily panic and deep fear I felt as I worried about having a place to sleep at night. For a young person living on the streets during COVID-19, that panic and fear are multiplied many times over. 

pandemic
Jevon Wilkes, executive director of California Coalition for Youth. Photo courtesy of Wilkes.

As one young caller to CCY’s California Youth Crisis Line said, “COVID has disrupted everything: employment, housing, relationships and more. I’m scared. Will someone help me? What do I do? I’m all I have.”

For many Americans the coronavirus has instilled a mix of fear and boredom. For youth and young adults on the streets, it has meant panic and trauma. Calls to our hotline for youth ages 12 to 24 are up 227 percent compared to 2019. A young person repeatedly calls our hotline to discuss the continuous and escalating sexual, physical and emotional abuse they are experiencing under the stay-at-home orders. Young people in the foster care and juvenile justice systems desperately need love and a positive sense of identity. Our callers report fear, anxiety, loneliness, hopelessness, interpersonal conflict. 

In a culture that equates fame with merit, young people see celebrities — many of them likely well-meaning — posting about climbing the walls of their posh homes or fretting about when they’ll be able to get their nails done. From a bathtub strewn with rose petals, Madonna told the world that COVID-19 is “the great equalizer.” As many have noted, she’s wrong. COVID-19 leverages structural racism to prey on the vulnerabilities of the people that our public policy consistently undermines — poor people, people of color and people with pre-existing conditions. 

As tens of thousands of people all over the globe continue to sicken and die from COVID-19, some with safety and stability are beginning to talk about a “silver lining” to this global crisis. Perhaps we’ll unite through politics. Perhaps we’ll reprioritize our public health infrastructure. Perhaps we’ll all learn valuable lessons about what’s truly important. 

To me, on the frontline, these very questions signal outrageous and unreflective privilege. 

I see no silver lining for the kids I engage with. I don’t know of a single young person who got a stimulus check. But Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse — a place neither I nor the youth I work with are ever likely to eat at — just got a cool $20 million. 

While celebrities get to sing about a future bright with possibility, the young people experiencing homelessness I’m hearing from are just trying to find a place with a bathroom they can use. 

Youth involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice system were already in desperate need of safety and security, love and identity. For far too long, these young people have been stripped of their agency and autonomy, leaving them voiceless and confused. Wondering if they will ever be seen again. A state, a judge determines the care of a child, a youth, a young heart, a young soul traumatized yet resilient, only to remain faceless. 

The fragile spark of potential that my colleagues and I work so hard to fan in each young person is being extinguished. It was a tough battle before COVID-19. Now, vulnerable young people are facing existential threats and the loss of any conviction about what a brighter future could look like. Their voices are nowhere in the headlines, and nowhere in the national debate. 

We can do better. Our traumatized, resilient young people — many of whom have their circumstances determined by the policies and decisions of the state — are impacted by the pandemic to a much greater degree than anyone who is stably housed in a loving home. In California, our leadership has shown some — well, leadership — announcing $42 million in investments to support youth in foster care and the families who care for them as well as youth who are parenting, which may mitigate the risks to them from enduring homelessness. 

But we’re just at the beginning of all this. It will take unprecedented unity and long-term policy solutions to ensure that we don’t lose a generation of young people who have already been victimized and undermined.

Maybe this will be the moment we make a new commitment to our children and youth. Maybe out of this crisis we will begin a movement toward healing that finally accepts and acknowledges the structural racism that defines our society. We can start by making sure the state’s COVID-19 response and economic recovery plan doesn’t leave out our children and youth experiencing homelessness. 

Jevon Wilkes is executive director of California Coalition for Youth and director of Youth Engagement for the California Children’s Trust.

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