The Problem of Older Youth Homelessness and One Project Aimed at Solving It

The two brothers, both teens, kept hoping their mother would pull together enough rent money to get their apartment back.  Living with their older sister in a car, they grew ever more skilled at taking care of themselves.  Eventually, tired and hungry, they showed up at DreamCatcher Youth Shelter in downtown Oakland.

Every day throughout the U.S., an alarming number of children and youth between the ages of 12 and 21 seek safe shelter outside their families’ homes, on their own. Many have been abused physically, sexually, or emotionally, most have endured hunger, cold, and chaos; all have chosen or been pushed to find somewhere else to stay for one night, a week, a month or longer.

Here in Alameda County, Calif., swaths of serious poverty and its corrosive effects on communities put children and youth at high risk of unaccompanied homelessness. DreamCatcher, the only teen shelter in Alameda County serving homeless youth ages 13-18, receives an average of six calls per day from youth in need of safe shelter, over 2,000 calls per year.

The need far outstrips the capacity, as all eight of DreamCatcher’s shelter beds are filled every night.

As a result of not being safely housed, the basic needs of homeless youth go unmet more often than not. DreamCatcher staff report that most youth arrive at the shelter hungry, tired, and stressed. Some, like the young brothers, have been sheltering in cars on the street, sometimes with a family member, sometimes not. Many others have been sleeping in abandoned buildings or on benches under overpasses.

Both before they leave home and once they are homeless, runaway and homeless youth are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, substance abuse, dropping out of school, and poor mental and physical health. They are at a higher risk for anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide attempts and other health problems as a result of their enhanced exposure to violence.

DreamCatcher staff estimates that one in three young women will be approached by a pimp and recruited into commercial sexual exploitation within 48 hours of landing on the street. Not surprisingly, many youth who come to DreamCatcher have histories of previous involvement in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems.

Older adolescents who today come to the door of DreamCatcher seeking safe shelter face a very different set of options than they would have just a short time ago. California’s “AB12” law, in effect since January 2012, provides for the expansion of federally funded, mandated supports and services to foster youth ages 18 to 21.

Timed to coincide with the implementation of this extraordinary new law, the Alameda County AB12 Homeless Youth Demonstration Project provides free civil legal representation to homeless and at-risk youth with the ultimate goal of getting all homeless youth off the streets and into safe, permanent, supportive homes.

In the coming weeks, the Foster Youth Alliance and its partner, Bay Area Legal Aid, will be releasing findings from the project, which from its start in July of 2011 has been developing a new model of civil legal representation and collaboration among agencies serving homeless adolescents. The project provides advocacy to help eligible youth achieve permanency, stabilization, and independence, connecting youth to child welfare agencies as appropriate.

By supporting youth in accessing every public benefit to which they are entitled and providing case management and coordination, the project seeks to ensure that resources and services are knit into a transformative opportunity for youth to recover from the chaos of homelessness.

The benefits to individual youth are obvious.  It goes without saying that youth who receive the support they need have a far greater chance of going to school, maintaining employment, receiving regular health care, and thriving in adulthood. Serving over 200 youth in the first 18 months, the project partners have begun to understand also just how profound the benefits are to communities and systems, and will be sharing those findings in the weeks ahead.

Most importantly for older homeless adolescents like the young brothers who found their way to DreamCatcher, the project provides a lifeline.

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

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