Youth homelessness in the United States is an under-reported crisis.
The statistics are truly startling. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as many as 1.6 million children are presently homeless.
In Minnesota where I am a youth worker there are over 4,000 youth 16-21 experiencing homelessness on any given night. Youth-specific shelter beds in Minnesota are limited to 139; there are 419 transitional living units for the same population, leaving 3,502 youth without stable housing.
Youth homelessness is not just an urban problem. Suburban and rural communities throughout the country struggle to provide supports to young people experiencing housing instability. Many youth migrate to urban areas where services are more abundant, forcing them to navigate unfamiliar streets and leaving them much more vulnerable.
Many youth seeking stable housing come out of foster care. Typically, youth have two overriding complaints about the foster care system: they had no say over where they were placed, and the people they lived with were paid to care for them.
The predictors of youth homelessness are complex and varied. Often times multiple variables lead to housing instability. Lack of affordable housing, family poverty, family conflict, aging out of foster care, mental illness, and substance abuse within the family are common issues. Add to those our country’s history of social disparities and injustices. Due to these disparities and injustices, indigenous and communities of color are disproportionately going to experience long-term homelessness. Due to these disparities and injustices, indigenous and communities of color going to experience long-term homelessness.
Shelters are a necessary component to combating housing instability but they are expensive to build and costly to staff and operate. The U.S. government spends more than $5 billion annually on homeless assistance programs, yet roughly 5 percent is allocated to serve homeless youth and children. Communities and service providers need to be creative when sharing resources with youth.
One creative approach is the host home model.
Avenues for Homeless Youth in Minneapolis runs the GLBT, ConneQT, Minneapolis, and Suburban Host Home Programs. Host home programs are an “outside the system” community and volunteer-based response to youth homelessness. Volunteers open their homes to young people looking for living stability, basic needs support, and healthy connections.
The host home model in Minneapolis is intentionally small and non-institutional and two features are flipped—the young person reads the applications of potential hosts and chooses whom to meet, and all hosts are volunteers. Host homes are thoroughly screened and trained, then provided ongoing support while they are hosting youth. But they are not “licensed,” which provides greater flexibility to address changing needs as they arise.
This model is sustainable because it is volunteer-based and community-born, but it also requires on-going examination of who gets the opportunity and who has the resources to volunteer. We strive to be creative about how to support folks who are already informally hosting or who want to host through our programs but feel they can’t afford to do so.
We also know that systemic and generational oppression are at the root of homelessness in this country. We could conceivably come up with 3,502 beds today, and tomorrow we would wake up to find youth homelessness still present in Minnesota.
We can’t talk about solving homelessness without tackling economic and racial injustices.
Minnesota is known for its service provision, but like many liberal states across the country, it has not been successful at moving beyond white liberalism and charity models to true cultural change – one that recognizes, challenges and shifts power and privilege.
Service providers need to partner with community organizers to find new ways to support young people. We need to create an entree to building awareness of youth homelessness so communities can commit to improving supports for young people and their families of origin and of choice. We need to keep seeing the bigger picture, to not only focus on more beds but also on the systems that create homelessness.
We need to do better.