Nancy Baglietto: Homelessness knows no age
Special to The Union
Recently, I spoke to students at Nevada Union. Students may be the most idealistic people in the world. Some of them will be at risk of becoming homeless, and others homeless already. Oddly, many won’t even realize this. They’re indoors, after all. The federal government, though, considers minors homeless when they “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” meaning any time things at home are hard enough that a young person has to leave to feel safe or have a bed. Often the entire family struggles with housing — high rents, medical expenses, and other considerations can easily spin a family out of permanent housing.
On any given night in America, approximately 41,000 unaccompanied youth are homeless, and over half of them are not in shelters or staying with friends. About 12 percent of these are under 18. Though complete counts are difficult to obtain, we believe that in Nevada County alone there are an estimated 300-plus teens staying with friends or family members, effectively homeless, many trying to attend college classes Sierra College. Full time coursework and a job – plus car insurance and other bills – render many unable to make ends meet. Some leave school in order to afford decent food and an apartment.
Couch-surfing for a few days, crashing with an aunt, spending an extra couple of days at a friend’s house are all categories of homelessness. They’re not living outdoors or in shelters but, struggling with high housing costs, these young people teeter on the edge of economic collapse. Homework gets lost, medical and dental care delayed, part time jobs that fit an academic schedule are hard to find. Most are between the ages of 18 and 24, technically adults, but still learning how to manage living independently.
Young people end up homeless for a variety of reasons. According to a report on youth homelessness compiled by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness in October of last year, about half become homeless after being asked to leave by a parent or caretaker. Thirty percent come out of the foster care system, a quarter from abusive or addiction-centered families, another quarter couldn’t find a job. One or both parents may be incarcerated. Once homeless, the percentage of people struggling with substance abuse and mental illnesses rises alarmingly fast – after two years on the street, 70 percent demonstrate symptoms of worsening mental health.
In addition, nearly 60 percent of homeless street youth, those who have been unsheltered for several months, have been assaulted, beaten, robbed, or raped, and 10 to 20 percent have been sexually trafficked. A study in San Francisco indicated that homeless street youth experienced a mortality rate over ten times higher than youth in general.
Brain research indicates that higher-level decision making skills don’t fully develop in teens and young adults until their early twenties, so many currently homeless youth started by engaging in high-risk, sensation seeking behaviors, and made impulsive, self-destructive choices to get themselves in trouble. The majority came out of dysfunctional households, and thus had neither appropriate adult guidance nor any safety net.
Thankfully in our area the Youth Collaborative, a partnership between NEO, the Friendship Club, What’s Up Wellness, the school district, and the county provides counseling, suicide prevention information, mentorships, life skills instruction, and perhaps most importantly, chances to talk to caring adults who listen without judgment. When we can intercept their trajectory early, we often see positive success stories. Young people are resilient, strong, hopeful.
Stable transitional housing, such as that at Hospitality House, gives young people over 18-years-old a safe space, an address, a place to store possessions, and access to the vast array of county resources.
Working with trained case managers, young people can apply for jobs, receive mail, make appointments with medical professionals, get childcare, job training, parenting assistance, counseling, and ultimately, move on to permanent housing.
As I’ve mentioned before, quickly getting people into permanent supportive housing, combined with extensive wraparound services, has been shown to significantly increase the percentage of people who make it out of poverty, mental illness, and addiction, and into more productive, happier lives.
As always, I welcome your questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, homelessness wears many different faces. Please check out our website for more videos and testaments to the power of shelter.
Nancy Baglietto serves as executive director for Hospitality House, with previous executive experience for agencies focusing on homeless people, homeless animals and the parks they use.
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