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700,000 US Teens Navigate School Without Family Support or Permanent Housing

About 700,000 of the nation’s 4.2 million homeless youth are living on their own, unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.

Unhoused youths represent a growing demographic -- and there is a profound lack of resources to address the structural issues surrounding poverty and homelessness.

Luisa, age 19, was fed up with her mom’s demand that she complete all the household cleaning, from scrubbing the toilets, to washing the dishes, to doing the laundry. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” she tells Truthout. “I did not want to be the only one in the house doing chores, so I left. I told my school that I had no place to stay and they sent me to Covenant House where I now share a room with another girl. I’ve been here for three weeks.”

Other residents of the New York City-based Covenant House tell different stories about how they got there. Princess, 18, says she left home because she was constantly being berated, taunted with names like “bitch” and “ho.”

“My family was getting in the way of me being successful,” she says.

Others, like Ruby, were booted out when they became pregnant. “Since coming to Covenant House six months ago, they’ve helped me with food, clothing, diapers for my son and post-natal care,” she says. “They even helped me finish high school.”

Not surprisingly, all three say that they are extremely grateful to have a roof over their heads, regular meals, and counseling and other services — supports they know many homeless teens are unable to access.

The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that 700,000 of the nation’s 4.2 million homeless youth are unaccompanied by a parent or guardian: 1 in 10 young adults between 18 and 25, and one in 30 aged 13 to 17. More than a quarter (27 percent) identify as queer, with LGBTQIA+ youth of color experiencing higher rates of homelessness than other populations.

What’s more, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, more than half of unaccompanied homeless youth are under 18 and sleep outside, in a car or in another place not meant for human habitation.

Sonia Pitzi, coordinator of Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness in eight Pennsylvania counties, works to keep homeless children and teens in school — whether they are living with their families in a shelter or motel, or are on their own. She’s done this work since 1995. This year, she reports that she’s assisting 17 unaccompanied minors. “Four [youths] are living in storage units and five in an abandoned building that has water but no heat. The other eight are couch surfing but have temporary places to sleep every night of the week,” she told Truthout.

Zach, one of the unaccompanied kids who works with Pitzi, spoke to nine of his peers and then wrote a three-page account of their routines and living conditions. “Want to know what it’s like? Wake up after sleeping on the floor, to get ready for your day. Oh yeah, you don’t have electricity. The bathroom you can use? Gas station down the road. Showers? School or a gym that has allowed us access.”

Food, he continues, is cold if not eaten at school. But the biggest indignity? Group members have to carry their possessions everywhere they go. “Just in case, no matter where we stay every night. Sonia [Pitzi] has been able to get us Epic Packs [a brand-named backpack] and compression sleeping bags so we can literally carry everything on our backs,” he wrote.

The stress is enormous, but Pitzi knows that keeping the kids connected to each other, and to routines, is essential. School is key.

Carrying Emotional Trauma

SchoolHouse Connection, a national Washington, D.C.-based group, works to keep homeless youth enrolled since numerous research studies have documented that one of the greatest risk factors for adult homelessness is not having a high school diploma or GED.

Nonetheless, the group’s executive director, Barbara Duffield, recognizes that staying enrolled is challenging since emotional and physical trauma is ubiquitous for this population.

Pitzi explains that kids often become homeless due to a parent’s death, incarceration or deportation. In addition, she says, “some left home or were kicked out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some left because a parent chose their partner over them. Some had been abused and some left because of heavy drug or alcohol use by the adults in the household. It amazes me how resilient these kids are,” she says, “but I also get a lot of crisis calls.”

These calls, she explains, happen when feelings of abandonment or being overwrought bubble up. “The kids hear their peers complaining about a curfew or having to clean their rooms and their grief builds. ‘Why did my mom or dad choose something or someone over me?’ they wonder. Most of the time they do great and trudge on, but every so often they get into a funk. Some need hospitalization, meds, or regular sessions with a therapist.”

Carol Hornbeck, a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based family therapist told Truthout that when a person experiences trauma, “they typically either shut down so they do not remember what happened or they get stuck in memories that intrude and interrupt their peace of mind. It is not uncommon for people to experience a combination of both.”

Trauma, she says, can impair cognitive and emotional functioning; it can also impact a person’s ability to make future plans. “Survivors may also be prone to physical health problems and can be so disconnected from their bodies that they wait until they are in crisis to seek medical attention,” Hornbeck says. Lastly, most find it hard to make new attachments and sabotage new relationships by constantly testing their acquaintances. “An adult who cares can help,” she says, “but if the pattern is broken relationships, it takes hard work to achieve relationship stability.”

That said, Hornbeck adds that concrete material supports — housing, food, medical care, job opportunities and tools for educational completion — are essential to healing.

But obstacles abound.

Criminalization Risk

Criminalization, for one, can derail degree completion and psychological stability. Nonetheless, teens are particularly vulnerable to being picked up by police for “status offenses,” arrests for things only considered a crime if done by a minor, such as curfew violations, school truancy or running away from home.

A November 2021 report by the National Homelessness Law Center concludes that “girls, youth of color, and LGBTQ youth are disproportionately subjected to harsher penalties for status offenses” that were ostensibly designed to protect them from victimization, but which instead lead to a criminal record that can impede future efforts to secure housing, school loans or employment.

Eric Tars, legal director of the Law Center, told Truthout that a minor who leaves home without intending to return can be deemed by law enforcement as a “person in need of supervision” and sent to juvenile court. Likewise with a minor who seeks shelter outdoors. “These provisions give law enforcement reasons to engage with homeless youth,” Tars explains. “They do not help or protect young people. They treat them as a problem to be remedied.” Such policies, he adds, can unwittingly push kids to avoid systems that might help them, including public schools, where they can get meals, shower, do laundry and get on-site counseling.

Bureaucratic Barriers

But even school attendance can be fraught since policy roadblocks can make access to school activities far harder than they should be. For example, many school programs require the sign-off of a parent or guardian in order for students to participate, something that is impossible for unaccompanied youth. “A great starting point would be letting young people sign for themselves or coming up with other ways for kids to participate in programs or get services,” SchoolHouse Connection’s Duffield says.

She also makes clear that the McKinney-Vento liaisons are often an unhoused student’s best link to services and stresses that they are an essential component for staying on track. Every school district in the US has a liaison, she explains – a person who has, since 1987, enforced the law guaranteeing that every homeless student receives a public education, regardless of whether they have personal documents, like a birth certificate, or a mailing address. The liaison is responsible for keeping students enrolled and making sure they have transportation as well as the other supports that they need to complete their studies.

Furthermore, while school personnel are mandated reporters of child endangerment, Duffield notes that “being an unaccompanied homeless youth is not a de facto reason to report.”

Still, Duffield is aware that numerous additional shifts would benefit unhoused minors, including allowing them to sign leases without an adult cosigner; allocating enough resources for the federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Act — which is supposed to fund 21 days of emergency shelter — so that funded agencies can provide longer-term care; providing the Earned Income Tax Credit to students who work while enrolled in school; increasing the maximum Pell Grant to help pay for college; and passing Build Back Better Act in the Senate so that more money will be available for rental assistance and the preservation and repair of dilapidated public housing.

Darla Bardine, executive director of the National Network for Youth, an organization that represents more than 300 community-based child and youth advocacy agencies, says that another obstacle is that the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has never prioritized young people. Instead, she says, “HUD prioritizes chronically homeless adults,” pitting the two constituencies — youth and adults — against one another in the scramble for funding.

Equally disturbing, says Donald Whitehead, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, is that the definition of homelessness varies depending on the agency doing the defining.

“The Department of Education has the broadest definition and includes people who are living doubled or tripled up,” with two or three families crammed into a small living space that is not designed to be shared. “HUD does not include these people,” Whitehead says. In addition, he stresses that there is a profound lack of resources to address the structural issues surrounding poverty and homelessness.

“We still don’t know the true extent of unhoused youth. The McKinney-Vento numbers don’t include runaways who don’t want to be seen or identified. The government tends to want one-size-fits-all solutions, but populations look different in different parts of the country,” he says. “Outreach to Indigenous populations is particularly under-resourced, but everywhere you look, when it comes to race, people of color enter homelessness at rates that are higher than their percentage of the overall population. This is true for all age groups.”

Unhoused youth, Whitehead continues, represent a growing demographic, and he says that he is increasingly troubled by the lack of support they receive. “Most McKinney-Vento liaisons do a phenomenal job, but how in the world can the rest of society ignore these kids?”

Zack and his unhoused peers in Pennsylvania have been asking themselves the same question. “We are students experiencing homelessness,” he wrote. “Being homeless isn’t who we are. We are, and always will be, people first.”