Every year an estimated 4.2 million young adults may experience homelessness. Seven hundred thousand of those young individuals are unaccompanied minors, meaning they are not a part of a family or accompanied by a parent. In understanding how we can help address youth homelessness, it is first important to understand the root causes of what may prompt a young individual to first experience homelessness.
Many factors can increase the chances of a young person experiencing homelessness. Demographic risk factors include people of color, specifically Hispanic or Black, parenting and unmarried households, and those in the LGBTQIA+ community.
LGBTQIA+ youth have more than twice the risk of becoming unhoused than those who are cisgender or heterosexual. 27% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and questioning youth experiencing homelessness reported that they had exchanged sex for basic needs. 62% of LGBTQIA+ youth have reported being physically harmed while experiencing homelessness.
In a 2019 report, the Congressional Research Service found that family conflict, sexual orientation, sexual activity, educational issues, pregnancy, and substance use are the primary risk factors for youth homelessness. Additionally, the report noted that females are more likely to run away than males; and among people of color, black youth have the highest rates of running away.
While these demographic risk factors might be more common to hear, human development is an underrepresented factor in young individuals’ likelihood of experiencing homelessness. Rational decision-making, inhibition, planning, and reasoning are stifled until a young person reaches maturity. This lack of developmental maturity makes young people biologically more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors, such as unsafe sexual activity and substance use. While these high-risk behaviors can be the root of homelessness, they can also further exacerbate the well-being of those experiencing homelessness. More specifically, without safe, permanent homes and caring adults to look after children, runaway and homeless youth are at greater risk of being in very unsafe situations.
Children within the foster care system also face multiple factors that can increase their risk of homelessness, including the number of foster care placements, history of running away from placements, and time spent in a group home. According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System in 2019, over 600 U.S. children ran away from foster care placements.
Youth experiencing homelessness are vulnerable to many threats, including unmet basic needs, untreated mental health issues, sexually transmitted diseases and infection, and sexual exploitation. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 3 teens will be lured into prostitution.
To further improve and solve the homeless crisis, specifically for the youth population, coordination across the education, child welfare, juvenile justice, and health and human services systems is essential.
To truly end homelessness, young adults need stable housing, supportive connections to caring adults, and access to mainstream services that will place them on a path to achieving a long-term solution. A true support system should be at the core of any approach.