Not One Young American Should Have to Spend the Night Sleeping on the Streets

Ending youth homelessness requires a movement of government leadership, advocacy groups and social service providers coming together for change.

by Kevin Ryan
Feb 22 2018, 5:30pm

Image via Covenant House

This is an opinion piece by Kevin Ryan, President and CEP of Covenant House, America’s largest non-profit shelter network for homeless youth

Yesterday I spent the best part of my day with Mark, an amazing, bright 18-year old who told me that after his family fell apart, he ended up homeless and in an adult shelter, and thought his life was over.

Instead, his roommate at the adult shelter told him about Covenant House. He is with us now, working on his resume, taking advantage of every program we offer, and grateful that he no longer has to worry about where he is going to sleep, shower, or eat at night. He still can't believe this is free, so I told him it's not. He's got to work harder than he's ever worked. He's got to believe in himself and his dream, and work tirelessly to make it a reality.

Mark is not going to be a homeless adult. I think he’s going to make it, and when he does it will be because thousands of people across the country built a bridge for young people like him to walk from despair to hope.

One out of every ten young people ages 18 to 25 experiences homelessness in a year.

Every day at Covenant House, we live and die with the successes and failures of every youth who comes through our doors facing homelessness. And we work extremely hard to partner with government leadership, advocacy groups and social service providers, because we know the problem of youth homelessness is much larger than any one organization. Ending youth homelessness requires a movement.

Check out the VICE Impact documentary, SHELTER:

Just how big is the national tragedy of youth homelessness? Recently researchers released their findings from the most comprehensive study ever undertaken on the prevalence of homelessness among youth in America. The results, while not surprising to us at Covenant House, are devastating and should be a wake-up call for all of us who care about young people and our future.

One out of every 30 kids aged 13 to 17 find themselves without a home in the course of a year.

According to the new report from the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, one out of every ten young people ages 18 to 25 experiences homelessness in a year. That’s 3.5 million young people annually, enough to fill the entire city of Chicago, our nation’s third largest city, or Houston, our fourth largest.

If this news doesn’t make your blood boil, check your pulse.

For younger and more vulnerable kids, the figures aren’t much better – one out of every 30 kids aged 13 to 17 find themselves without a home in the course of a year. That’s 700,000 adolescents, enough to fill 800 high schools, facing the perils of street life alone.

Chapin Hall conducted its interviews in 22 communities, including at several of our Covenant House sites in California, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. Wherever I go for Covenant House, I see them, kids who had one stroke of bad luck, then the house of cards collapsed, leaving them to face homelessness alone. Kids who don’t have foster parents anymore, after their eighteenth birthday. Kids whose folks kicked them out of the house for being pregnant, or gay, or transgender. College kids, who make up an unfathomable 29 percent of homeless young adults. Kids whose parents died, or went to jail, or overdosed, or couldn’t or wouldn’t parent them.

Homelessness is the least interesting thing about our kids. They are artists and athletes, students and staff, rappers and writers, comedians and co-workers. They’re our sons and daughters, brimming with hope. Homeless is where they are. Not who they are.

Then there are the young people I don’t see, the ones in small towns and rural areas. There, the prevalence of youth homelessness is actually slightly higher, though services like shelters and case managers are much harder to find.

I’m struck by the scope of the problem we are tackling. Each year Covenant House reaches 80,000 young people who face homelessness and trafficking, most of them ages 16 to 21, in 31 cities across six countries. We provide 10,000 kids each year with a warm bed, food, health services, and case managers, and, most important of all, unconditional love and respect. Others use our non-residential drop-in programs or public education and homelessness prevention programs.

Eighty thousand is a huge number, but it’s dwarfed by the 3.5 million young people ages 18-25 and 700,000 adolescent minors Chapin Hall found to be experiencing homelessness each year.

But with half of the youth interviewed by Chapin Hall reporting being homeless for more than a year, there are far too many who never receive the services they need. As the report notes, " Adolescence and young adulthood represent a key developmental window. Every day of housing instability and the associated stress represents a missed opportunity to support healthy development and transitions to productive adulthood."

The study fixes a needed spotlight on a very hard-to-count group of young people – homeless youth try to blend in with their peers who have homes, as no teen likes to stick out as different, but also because pimps, drug dealers, and gangs seek out kids who appear alone in the world, to exploit them. Half of the older cohort was couch-surfing and extra hard to find, but still in desperate need – half of them report feeling unsafe while moving from one friend or relative’s house to another.

Those young people lacking a high school diploma or GED have a 3.5 times higher likelihood of experiencing homelessness than their peers who completed high school, according to the report.

The study looked at a year of homelessness, not just one day or week as used in the federal Point in Time study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It counted more than the federal Department of Education can, as it found kids who were out of school. Those young people lacking a high school diploma or GED have a 3.5 times higher likelihood of experiencing homelessness than their peers who completed high school, according to the report.

In over 25 years of caring for homeless youth, I can tell you that none of these young people wants to be on the streets; none choose to be homeless. We immediately need more safe places for kids to stay, to keep them from having to choose between sleeping on the streets or sleeping with someone who will use and abuse them. We also immediately need stronger state laws and more funding dedicated to eradicating homelessness. We need to build more bridges from despair to hope, so that we don’t lose the promise and the potential of kids like Mark.

In order to provide these kinds of fundamental services for this population, Covenant House -- America's largest non-profit shelter network that has been on the front lines protecting the lives of at-risk young adults for more than 40 years -- also needs your support. You can make a difference by donating to their organization too, and watching SHELTER above.