How come? They are homeless. Unaccompanied by a parent or family member, they are literally on their own.
How many Connecticut kids are we talking about? What’s your guess – 50? 500? You’ll have to add a zero to that. As of the 2018 count of homeless youth (under age 25), there were over 5,000 with no safe, regular place to sleep. And before you assume that most of these youth are in their 20s, don’t. Homelessness affects a significant number of teens and even middle-schoolers.
If you’re not in the business of finding and housing these youth, you might not realize the magnitude of the problem. Many homeless youth are, in large part, invisible and many intentionally so. They don’t want to be found because they worry they will be forced into the foster care system or an adult shelter, or have to go to a new school. Many have endured trauma and rejection and simply do not expect anyone to help them. Others simply have a circuit of couches they can crash on and don’t think of themselves as homeless.
What’s caused their homelessness? Many have been rejected by their families because of sexual orientation, pregnancy, substance abuse, or criminal activity. Others may be fleeing an abusive home environment or a foster family. Because of their ages they are more likely to be exposed to danger, abuse, and human trafficking.
Even the ones who are found require an approach quite different from the one that works well for adults. “Youth homelessness is unique in that their needs and barriers are much different than the population over [age] 24,” says Caroline Perez, Columbus House. Thus, in order to win their trust and earn their willingness to accept housing and services, new programs are emerging that are focused on youth outreach and youth shelter.
The Salvation Army of New Britain (and Liberty Bank Foundation grantee) has created a program specifically for homeless youth outreach. Kids are unwilling or unlikely to seek help at a social services office. So in New Britain, a Youth Navigator meets with homeless youth on their turf and will respond 24hours a day. Forming a trusting relationship is paramount, so the Navigator becomes the youth’s sole point of contact. Navigators can seek family mediation to problem solve, or help youth connect with another family member that can provide stable housing.
The Navigator also plays a much more pivotal role in helping the youth complete their education, find employment, and develop life skills. If a youth must enter shelter, they receive priority when shelter space opens up. “The crisis beds are tailored to fit the needs of youth and are more private than most regular shelters,” says Caroline.
Robyn’s House at the Women and Families Center in Meriden exclusively serves homeless youth between ages 18 and 21. Its focus is on establishing trusting relationships with its residents and returning some structure to their lives, while providing housing stability. “Each of these youth have suffered a unique trauma at a very young age,” says Carissa Conway, Women and Families Center. “It’s our job to understand what happened between birth and homelessness, so we can meet them on their terms.”
While at Robyn’s House, residents return to school if they have not yet graduated (transportation is provided); otherwise they are required to have a job. They have a curfew and household chores, and meet regularly with the staff. “It’s our job to help them develop the coping and life skills they need to move forward,” says Carissa. Three times a week, a family-style dinner includes all residents and staff to help build a feeling of belonging.
Another difference in support for youth is continuing services. Carissa notes that once youth are no longer eligible to live at Robyn’s Place due to age, the staff works to help them find their next housing situation and to provide ongoing social services.
Next Month, all those who serve homeless youth will be participating in the Governor’s 100 Day Challenge to end this heart-wrenching problem. Let’s cross our fingers and hope by the end of this summer that we can move the needle on restoring youth to the safety and care they all deserve.