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

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 there was no place for me to stay, and they sent it to me. Covenant HouseI now share my room with another girl. I’ve been here for three weeks.”

Other Covenant House residents from New York City share 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.

Ruby was one of the many women who were kicked out after becoming 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. Over a quarter (27%) identify as LGBTQIA+. youth of color experiencing higher rates of homelessnessCompared to other populations

What’s more, according to the National Alliance to End HomelessnessOver half of homeless youth living in unaccompanied situations are under 18 years old and sleep outside in a vehicle or in other places not intended 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]Five of them live in storage units, while five others are in an abandoned building with no heat and water. The other eight are couch surfing but have temporary places to sleep every night of the week,” she toldTruthout.

Pitzi’s unaccompanied kid Zach spoke with nine of his peers. He then wrote a three-page report of their lives and routines. “Want to know what it’s like? After sleeping on the ground, get up and get ready to start your day. Oh yeah, you don’t have electricity. You can use the bathroom. The gas station is down the street. Showers? School or a gym that has allowed us access.”

He says that food is cold if it’s not eaten at school. But what is the worst indignity? Group members must carry their belongings wherever they go. “Just in case, no matter where we stay every night. Sonia [Pitzi]Epic Packs have been made possible by the company. [a brand-named backpack] and compression sleeping bags so we can literally carry everything on our backs,” he wrote.

Pitzi understands the stress that comes with this, but Pitzi is able to keep the kids connected to each others and to their routines. School is essential.

Emotional Trauma

SchoolHouse ConnectionThe National Washington, D.C.-based group aims to keep homeless youth enrolled. Numerous research studies have proven that this is one of the most successful programs for keeping them enrolled. greatest risk factorsAdult homelessness does not require 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 their partner was chosen by their parent. Some were abused, while others left because of heavy drug and alcohol abuse by the adults in their household. It amazes me how resilient these kids are,” she says, “but I also get a lot of crisis calls.”

These calls are caused by feelings of abandonment and being too involved. “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. They do well most of the time and get on with their lives. But sometimes they fall into a funk. Some need hospitalization, meds, or regular sessions with a therapist.”

Carol Hornbeck, a Minneapolis-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. Most people find it difficult to form new attachments or sabotage 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

For one, criminalization can affect 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, the legal director at the Law Center, said 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. The same applies to a minor who seeks shelter outside. “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

Even school attendance can be problematic because of policy roadblocks which can make accessing school activities much more difficult than it should be. Many school programs require students to sign off as parents or guardians in order to be allowed to participate. This is not possible 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 in school and ensuring they have transportation and all the other support they need to finish 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.”

Duffield is still aware that many additional shifts would benefit unhoused children, including allowing them sign leases without an adult cosigner. The federal government has enough resources to support this. 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 YouthThe organization, which represents more than 300 community-based child and young advocacy agencies, said that another obstacle is that HUD, the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development), 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.

Donald Whitehead is the executive director of The Equalizer. Coalition for the HomelessThe fact that homelessness is defined differently by each agency is a sign of its vulnerability.

“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. He also stressed that there is a severe shortage of resources to address structural issues such as 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.”

Whitehead states that unhoused youth represent a growing number of people and is becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack 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 Pennsylvanian unhoused friends have been asking 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.”