Youth homelessness is at record levels — changing how we define it can help

When you think of homelessness, who do you see? Perhaps the image of someone asking for money or food. Or an individual sleeping under a bridge, on the train, or on a park bench. What we typically don’t see are youths who are experiencing homelessness. Their struggles are more often hidden from view, by school or friends or distant family members, or by the ceaseless cycle of temporary way stations. 

There are systemic reasons for this, too. When the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assesses who’s homeless, they do so only by counting the number of people on the streets and in shelters on one night. There’s a reason that, from 2007-2017, HUD reported a 23 percent decline in family homelessness, while the Department of Education reported a 70 percent increase in student homelessness. 

By its own definition, HUD misses anyone with a non-shelter roof over their head (i.e., a couch, motel), even if that roof is as unstable, transitory and harmful as living on the street. In other words, they don’t count someone like a 20-year old woman who, having moved to Chicago to be with her biological mother, was left bouncing from couch to couch, many owned by people she barely knew, many toxic and dangerous. 

For millions of young people, HUD’s definition has significant consequences. If, according to HUD, a youth isn’t homeless, it makes it harder for community organizations (who rely on the department’s funds) to help them. The Homeless Children and Youth Act (HCYA), reintroduced this April, hopes to expand the definition and provide more young people with the assistance they need. With COVID-19 exacerbating record levels of youth homelessness, Congress needs to pass this bill now more than ever. 

In 2017, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago’s Voices of Youth Count (VYC) revealed that one in 10 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25, and at least one in 30 teens between 13 and 17, experience some form of homelessness over the course of a year. The economic hardships, health risks and remote schooling brought on by the pandemic has worsened the problem, particularly for Black and Latinx youths.

Though HUD’s definition elides millions, many young people also (and understandably) resist viewing themselves as experiencing homelessness — especially if they have a couch to sleep on. The VYC report finds that only half of young adults self-reported as homeless; the other half reported they were couch surfing. In one of the VYC surveys, 93 percent of homeless youths said they had couch surfed at one point or another. 

Some may argue that this does, in fact, constitute not being without a home — or that at least it’s immeasurably better than being on the street. To that, there are two clear answers. For one, we’ve seen that youth homelessness does not have a simple definition. Every individual’s story is different, and most involve a long series of unstable and dangerous housing options. 

For another, those who couch surf encounter many of the same challenges as living on the street, chief among them not knowing for certain where they’re going to sleep each night or whether it’s secure. Couch surfing youths we work with often report physical and sexual abuses, too, as well as a range of other stressors. One young woman recalled juggling online courses, a job at a fast food restaurant, and the need to find food and shelter each night. She feared contracting COVID-19 after a co-worker was infected. Scared of staying on the streets, she then felt burdened by debts she owed friends who lent her money to stay at motels or buy clothes. Couch surfing proved similarly difficult, full of “toxic” elements that forced her to keep moving.  

The Homeless Children and Youth Act empowers local decision-making and aligns HUD’s Homeless Assistance criteria with other, more flexible federal definitions — definitions that can encompass all experiences of youth homelessness, not just those we see on the streets or in city shelters. 

The bill’s critics say it will be too costly, that it won’t help those who are most vulnerable, and that all we need is more rental assistance and affordable housing. 

Having served on the frontlines of Chicago’s youth homelessness crisis, we argue that the youths who are least visible are often the most vulnerable because of that invisibility. By not addressing their plight, we only perpetuate the problem — and its associated costs — as those experiencing homelessness become, in many cases, adults caught in the same cycle. 

As for rental assistance and affordable housing that lacks comprehensive support, these, too, do not address the root of the problem. The majority of Americans don’t expect their 18- to 20-year-old children to have their own market-rate apartment, to work, pay bills and handle leases all on their own — so why should we expect that of youths experiencing homelessness? These young people, who often suffer from complex traumas, are in urgent need of transitional housing and support services. 

At Ignite, where I work, a 19-year-old woman with a history of abuse and clinical depression is receiving just that: a gradual approach to independent housing, an attentive case manager with whom she meets weekly, and a career readiness program that helped her find a job at a local bakery. 

During her stay, she has had time to think about the way HUD defines homelessness. “Eventually you’ll run out of people to let you couch surf; then you have nobody and you’re alone,” she told us recently. “Why would the government allow you to get to this position?”

Stephanie Piccirilli is president and CEO of Ignite, a nonprofit organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of homelessness for Chicago youths. Ignite receives funding from HUD.

Tags Couch surfing Homelessness Housing HUD Youth homelessness

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