Youth Usually Experience Homelessness in Their Teens. The Path Starts Long Before.

Most youth who wind up homeless find themselves in that state in their teen years. But the path there often began in their homes, years beforehand.

That is one of the big takeaways from a recent report by University of Chicago-based Chapin Hall, a research group that interviewed young people around the country about their experience with homelessness.

“The vast majority of the young people we surveyed had experienced trauma and instability at a young age, whether it was entering the foster care system or losing a parent,” said Chapin Hall Executive Director Bryan Samuels. “The results reveal clear moments when child welfare officials and social services agencies can intervene to prevent youth homelessness from happening in the first place.”

For “Missed Opportunities in Youth Pathways Through Homelessness in America,” researchers interviewed 215 young people from five places: Cook County (Chicago), Illinois; Philadelphia, Pa.; San Diego, Calif.; Travis County (Austin), Texas; and Walla Walla County, Washington. The goal was to “capture a broad range of youth perspectives and experiences of housing instability and homelessness,” the report said.

More than 80 percent of interviewees reported that their first experience with homelessness occurred in their teens. More than half did not experience homelessness before their 16th birthday. The vast majority of the young people interviewed experienced homelessness alone: just 24 percent of them reported becoming homeless with their families.

One factor surely influencing that result: for 94 out of the 215 interviewees, about 44 percent, had a history in foster care. Of that group of 94, nearly half said entrance into foster care was the “beginning of their housing instability.”

For other young people interviewed in this study, homelessness was not always an immediate result of a recent change in circumstances. About a third of all interviewees said they had experienced the death of a parent.

“This … finding emphasizes the degree to which youth pathways are mired in loss, a reality that influenced how their homelessness began, the critical conditions that shaped their pathways, and the instability that followed them throughout,” the report said.

For other young adults, it was family conflict that they believe led to homelessness. Thirty percent said their homelessness was “directly shaped by growing up in families mired in cycles of physical abuse/neglect/violence.” One hundred of the interviewees noted experience with discrimination in the home, mostly based on sexual orientation or race and ethnicity.

According to a one-night count in the 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 159,911 people younger than 25 who experienced homelessness. Just 36,361 of them were identified as unaccompanied, living without family. The group of 215 interviewed by Chapin Hall were all unaccompanied youths. However, 24 percent of them noted some time spent homeless with their families.

Perhaps the most depressing finding of all comes in the self-reflection questions for interviewees, where they were asked what actions of their own might have contributed to their experience with homelessness. While 31 percent cited mental health issues and 21 percent mentioned struggles with drugs and alcohol, a full 51 percent identified “their own preferences for being self-reliant, not ‘being a burden,’… or having ‘too much pride’” as a barrier to finding help in getting housing.

The report is part of a Chapin Hall series called “Missed Opportunities.” That series is a component of Voices of Youth Count, a larger research and policy initiative designed to impact efforts to interrupt and end unaccompanied homelessness among youth and young adults.

“We learned from them that their housing instability starts when they are young, and under specific conditions – such as earlier disruptions of home and stability due to family conflict or entering foster care,” said Gina Samuels, the study’s lead author. “With that knowledge, we now know when and where we have to do more to intervene.”

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at