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Who Are You, And Why Are You Living On My Street? A Report On America's Homeless Children

By Theodora Filis

It is estimated that as many as 50,000 youth sleep on the streets in the United States, and evidence suggests that the problem is real and growing.

More families entered the homeless shelter system in September of 2011 than in any other month since data has been collected – 25 years ago. An estimated 600,000 Americans are currently homeless, including nearly 70,000 veterans, according to the recently released The State of Homelessness in America from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

US rates are alarmingly high: 21 homeless per 10,000 people across the country.

Compared with low-income housed children, homeless children experience more health problems, developmental delays, increased anxiety, depression, behavioral problems, and lower educational achievement. Young people who are too old for foster care and too young to apply for social services face devastating short- and long-term consequences from being forced to survive on the streets.

“There's not enough space for all these lost kids in shelters, which are relatively safe. On the street, they panhandle, steal and prostitute themselves in order to survive. Rape, sexual exploitation, physical assault, addiction, mental illness and physical illness like HIV/AIDS can be hard to avoid. Some commit suicide. Like their adult counterparts, however, youth receiving shelter services fare better than those on the streets. Teens who find beds and make connections in shelters are more likely to complete high school, escape victimization and make homelessness a fading memory.”

A study by the US Department of Health and Human Services found that 46% of homeless youth escaped a home where they suffered physical abuse, while 17% left because of sexual abuse. Children who have been in foster care have a greater risk of becoming homeless at an earlier age than other youth, and are more likely to remain homeless for a longer period of time. Young people are at far greater risk of becoming homeless if their parents engage in substance abuse or have mental health problems, if there is child abuse or neglect in the home, if the family has been homeless previously, or if they identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Poverty, racism and homophobia, reports, are “the trifecta of our failure to these youth – are often silent, but pervasive. Black and Native American youth and youth from low-income and working class families are overrepresented among teens on the street. “LGBTQ youth are overrepresented at extreme rates, with 20 to 40g percent of homeless youth identifying as LGBTQ versus two to three percent in the general population.”

According to the National Alliance To End Homelessness, “A large contributor to youth homelessness is discharge from state institutions. Without a home, family support, or other resources, homeless youth are often locked up because they are without supervision and arrested for “status” offenses, such as running away or breaking curfew. In addition, as youth age out of the foster care system or are released from juvenile detention, they may lack support systems and opportunities for work and housing. In fact, 25 percent of former foster youth nationwide reported that they had been homeless at least one night within two-and-a-half to four years after exiting foster care.”

On any given night, between 300,000 to 400,000 youths sleep on the streets:
  • The US Federal Government must increase the budget for the Chaffee Foster Care Independence Program.
  • Early intervention services for family preservation and housing options are key to ending youth homelessness.
  • Funding should also be increased for the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act in order to increase services like outreach and emergency shelter.
We must work together to end youth homelessness now – our future depends on it!

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