Each year, over half a million children and college-aged adults are unhoused for at least a week in the United States. LGBTQ+, pregnant, parenting, and Black and Indigenous youth are more likely to be unhoused, as are young people who have been involved in the criminal injustice or child welfare systems (National Alliance to End Homelessness). Many turn to substance use and are several times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their peers with housing. One-third have had sex in exchange for food, shelter, or drugs. The leading cause of death for unhoused youth is suicide (NN4Y).
Aside from the lasting effects of poverty, addiction, and trauma, unhoused youth face additional structural barriers that follow them into adulthood. Requirements for legal guardianship, residency, and attendance all work to systematically force unhoused youth out of the school system. Finding, applying for, and being selected for a job without stable housing is already incredibly difficult and is worsened without a high school diploma. The young people pushed out of the education system are then pushed out of the job market as adults (NN4Y).
• Support ACT UP Philadelphia, AYA Youth Collective, the Coalition on Homelessness, Err’body Eats, Sisters of the Road, True Colors United, or another organization of unhoused youth.
• Give cash, generously and unconditionally, to your neighbors on the street.
Too many “solutions” from government and nonprofit institutions further marginalize unhoused young people by framing them as problems to surveil, discipline, and reform. As young people and unhoused people, they are already doubly marginalized, with many also LGBTQ+, disabled, and/or BIPOC. There’s also the inherent power differential between someone seeking assistance and the social worker or service provider deciding whether or not to provide it—often someone who has never been unhoused themselves. The result is a “service system of unequal provider-client relationships in which their dignity and identity are often devalued” (The Lancet).
The solution to youth homelessness is right in the name of the problem. To fix youth homelessness, young people need homes. As a nationwide coalition of community, faith-based, and public organizations identifies, if we wish to eradicate youth homelessness, “government and communities should offer more housing to unaccompanied youth” (NN4Y).
Youth homelessness is frequently ignored. When it’s mentioned, political and corporate leaders frame it as an unfortunate problem they’re trying to fix as soon as they can. In reality, youth homelessness is produced: by school districts whose policies force unhoused youth to drop out, by developers and landlords who view housing as investment vehicles instead of homes, by a government that refuses to enforce the human right to shelter, and by the police who arrest unhoused young people if they try to sleep in one of the 28 vacant homes that exist for every unhoused person in the United States (United Way). Were the human rights of unhoused children ranked more important than the property rights of absentee landlords and hedge funds that hoard vacant houses, we could end youth homelessness today.
We must all engage with and support radical, transformative organizing to make that a reality, particularly through building solidarity with and materially supporting the leadership of unhoused youth themselves. That half a million young people in the wealthiest nation in the world lack housing is neither natural nor inevitable. We must demand more and take action accordingly.
• Over 500,000 children and young adults are unhoused for at least a week each year.
• Unhoused youth face assault, trauma, and structural barriers to education and employment.
• There are 28 vacant homes for every unhoused person in the United States today.