Monday, January 14, 2013

Understanding Homeless Youth

        The issue of teen homelessness could have slipped under your radar, as it does for many teens. This feels like a very alien issue to many teens who don’t know any teens who are experiencing homelessness, or aren’t aware of just how many teens are on the streets because they rarely cross paths with each other. On any given night, there are hundreds of youth in Seattle without a safe place to sleep, and possibly up to 2,000 in the whole of King County. I was really surprised by that number, that’s more people than my high school. But I was more surprised this has gone unnoticed by me, and other teens. We talked about it for one day in 9th grade health, and after that I guess teens sleeping alone outside at night just isn't as important as reading Lord of the Files and doing algebra to Seattle Public Schools. Maybe we forget about this more in schools because homeless youth aren’t in schools as much as kids who have a stable home, and also because on the surface, you can’t always just look at someone and know if they ran away last month, or have been couch surfing week to week. Basically, it’s a bit of an invisible issue, not an issue seen or talked about. And because of this, there are a lot of myths about being homeless. 

MYTH: Youth choose to be on the streets (rebelling against their parents, are fine with being on their own).
TRUTH: Really most teens leave/are forced out of their homes because of emotional, sexual, physical abuse, or neglect. Family conflict and  intense trauma cause teens to feel unsafe, scared, and/or unwanted and the only safe option is leaving home.

FACT: Runaways are only about 2% of teens fed in youth homeless shelters (have been reported as runaways to the police). Most runaways return home after one or two nights.

MYTH: Most homeless youth are addicted to drugs, have criminal records, and are dangerous, bad kids. 
TRUTH: Homeless youth aren’t a population of 'bad' people, but they might be more at risk to get into drugs and crime when all else has failed them. They just have many more stresses and worries that drugs can be a distraction from.

MYTH: Homeless youth are different from most teens. 
TRUTH: Well yes, they are different because they are homeless, but they are still teens. They might have experienced much greater trauma and have much lower trust and resources than I have, but they also just want to have a stable home, friends, and the ability to do what interests them, or what’s fun. 

FACT: GLBTQ teens are around 40% of homeless youth. Why so many, when under 10% of the population is LGBTQ? Family rejection and abuse is often much stronger for these teens. 

So what is being a homeless youth like? Imagine having to always be looking over your shoulder, watching your own back because there’s no house over it. No roof over your head protecting you from weather, and no parents there to stand up for you, catching the worries of buying food, heating, clothes, school supplies, toiletries. Where can you wash your clothes, where are you going to sleep that’s safe, how can you focus on doing school stuff when there are so many more important needs to be met everyday? Where do you do your homework, and what about when nothing makes sense? A few of my teachers require online computer homework, how would a homeless youth do that? In addition to all the physical needs that are hard to meet, what about life at school? Social high school is hard enough without another isolating factor. Society looks down on people in tent camps under the bridge, sadly but true. Being homeless is anything but fun, and a teen that’s living out alone could feel hopeless, scared, alone, depressed, hurt, and very tired....

Seattle, as the biggest city in the northwest, and a fairly progressive and open minded one too, attracts many homeless youth from the surrounding areas, and even states like Oregon and Idaho. Big cities tend to have more programs available to the homeless and a bigger budget and focus on shelters, food kitchens etc. Although there are different youth shelters around Seattle, they all have specific requirements for staying in their shelters (ie. parent permission is sometimes required after a certain amount of time.) As that is completely impossible for most homeless teens, there are other shelters that have looser requirements. 

If you think that someone could benefit from information on shelters or other programs, call Teen Link or give them our number for detailed information, 1866TeenLink (833-6546) or visit our website online at

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