What Brings Homeless Teens to a Youth Shelter?

In my first two posts, we looked at the problem of older adolescent homelessness and a project that is addressing it right here in Oakland.  Now let’s take a look at what we’re learning about these youth.

What brings an older adolescent to the steps of a teen shelter, alone?  The Alameda County AB 12 Homeless Youth Demonstration Project maintains an extensive database about participating youths’ current circumstances and life experiences. The information collected dispels some commonly-held, mistaken presumptions about older homeless youth.

Instability, Danger in the Home

“People have asked if these are kids who are trying to avoid parental restrictions such as curfew or limited television usage,” said Rachael Gardiner, an attorney who has worked with most of the youth in the project.

Instead, Gardiner says, “these youth end up at the shelter due to high conflict situations in their homes — some due to economic instability but for the most part, they flee their homes because of severe or repeated neglect and abuse, having had multiple episodes of maltreatment that span months, years, or since early childhood.”

Nearly 90 percent of youth accessing DreamCatcher Youth Shelter from July 1, 2011, to December 31, 2012, reported experiencing highly unstable home situations, with approximately half reporting neglect and abandonment. Coming from extremely precarious living environments, they are beset by a range of interconnected challenges.

Ninety-five percent of DreamCatcher youth reported unemployment as a source of strain in their family home, with 29 percent reporting housing instability or homelessness among their parents or guardians. Nearly one-third of youth served by DreamCatcher were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning youth who did not feel safe in their homes.

System Involvement

The homeless youth served by this project had very high rates of involvement with the foster care and juvenile justice systems. Eight out of ten youth referred to the project reporting prior involvement in one system or the other.

Homeless youth are at extreme risk of being sexually exploited, whether as a result of a history of sexual abuse or due to the struggle to meet their basic needs. One-third of female youth accessing the shelter reported to staff that they had experienced sexual exploitation as minors. Shelter staff have observed that the longer a young woman is without safe and stable housing, the greater likelihood she will be exploited.

Trouble Coping

In addition, many older homeless adolescents have maladaptive coping strategies, as evidenced by the high percentage of substance abuse, oftentimes a form of self-medication for untreated mental illness. About two-thirds of youth were observed to struggle with mental health issues, and 57 percent had alcohol or substance abuse issues.

Withdrawn from Education

Not surprisingly, youth accessing DreamCatcher reported only marginal educational participation. Just 15 percent of youth reported having recently attended school regularly. Fully 53 percent reported having dropped out of school or not having recently attended school at all.

“Some youth enter the shelter after being on their own for weeks or months,” says Gardiner.  “Youth report that prior to being at the shelter, they lived in abandoned buildings, out of cars, or bounced between multiple homes sleeping on friends’ couches.”

“Clearly these youth are fleeing their homes as a survival tactic,” Gardiner concludes.  The AB 12 Homeless Youth Demonstration Project is helping to connect them to the supports they need not just to survive but to thrive.

Reed Connell is the executive director of the Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance.

On January 1, 2012, Assembly Bill 12, California’s Fostering Connections to Success Act, became law, providing for the expansion of federally funded, mandated supports and services to foster youth ages 18-21. The Alameda County AB 12 Homeless Youth Demonstration Project was timed to coincide with the implementation of this extraordinary new law. This series documents the project’s purpose, procedures, and findings.

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