In The Shadows

The unique experiences and needs of homeless youth

by Natalee Kasza

A hidden but growing population among homeless people lurks in the neighborhoods around town. These nomads rarely stay in one place for very long, and they may even go to school. They are the young people—teens and young adults—without a place to call home.

Numbering Hidden Masses

Various entities have attempted to count the number of young people experiencing homelessness in recent years—and they’ve found it challenging. The University of Chicago Chapin Hall school conducted a national phone survey of 26,000 Americans in 2017 that showed about 3.5 million people ages 18 to 25 had been homeless or couch-surfed in the past year.

Voices of Youth Count released similar findings the same year: One in 10 Americans ages 18 to 25 experiences homelessness annually, and half of those only couch-surf. Among youth ages 13 to 17, one in 30 experiences homelessness, and a quarter of them only couch-surf.

Sparky Harlan, executive director of the Bill Wilson Center (a Santa Clara-based organization that serves at-risk youth) told Palo Alto online, “Every homeless person starts out on a couch. Depending on what day it is, a youth could be sleeping on a friend’s couch or they could be out on the street. They go back and forth, and the idea they’re two distinct populations is inaccurate.”

A 2016 pan-Canadian study, Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey, showed troublingly high numbers as well. More than 1,100 respondents from 47 different communities across 10 provinces and territories participated in the survey, which showed that 35,000 to 40,000 young Canadians experience homelessness each year. In fact, people ages 13 to 24 make up 20 percent of the homeless population.

Among young people enrolled in U.S. public schools in the 2016–17 school year, 1.3 million had experienced homelessness, according to a 2019 report from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. That was an increase of 7 percent over a three-year period. The summary also showed that “76 percent of students experiencing homelessness were sharing housing with others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason.” (Editor’s note: You can see data from the summary for your state here:

While no one knows for sure whether youth homelessness has plagued North America for decades or it has spiked recently, experts have identified several causes for the issue.

Conflict in the Home

Many young people choose to leave home because they face extreme family conflict. The Toronto Without a Home study showed that 63 percent of homeless youth had experienced childhood trauma and abuse. More than 50 percent had endured physical abuse as a child or adolescent, 24 percent suffered sexual abuse, and 47 percent experienced other forms of violence and abuse. “Given this, it shouldn’t be a surprise that 57 percent of youth indicated that they had some kind of involvement with child protection services in the past,” the survey states.

In the U.S., the National Network for Youth reports that 90 percent of youth who access shelters for minors through the federally funded Basic Center programs say they experience difficulty at home, such as “constant fighting or screaming.” While some youth leave home to escape a parent’s or caregiver’s troublesome issues, others leave because of conflict related to their own choices or circumstances.

A 2019 Congressional Research Service report claims that youth most often cite family conflict as the major reason for their homelessness: “A youth’s poor family dynamics, sexual activity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, school problems, and alcohol and drug use are strong predictors of family discord.”

Canadian research has shown similar findings. “Difficult family situations and conflict as well as physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse are underlying factors in youth homelessness,” reports a 2013 study, Youth Homelessness in Canada: Implications for Policy and Practice.

“Other strains on the family may stem from challenges young people themselves are facing (substance use, mental health, learning disabilities, struggles with the education system, involvement in the legal system). The causes of such behaviors may include stresses associated with parental behavior, such as alcohol or drug use.”

Parental Instability

For many people the cycle of housing instability and homelessness begins because of economic hardship. The Voices of Youth Count survey showed that youth reporting an annual household income of less than $24,000 had a 162 percent higher risk of losing their homes.

Youth surveyed for the Canadian Without a Home study reported a high degree of housing instability prior to their current experience of homelessness. Nearly 76 percent of youth said they had experienced multiple episodes of homelessness, and 24 percent said they had been homeless only once. Those who left home before age 16 were much more likely to experience multiple episodes of homelessness

“Homeless youth are vulnerable to both sex and labor trafficking because they tend to experience a higher rate of the primary risk factors to trafficking: poverty, unemployment, a history of sexual abuse, and a history of mental health issues.”

The National Coalition for the Homeless describes the problem this way: “Some youth may become homeless when their families suffer financial crises resulting from lack of affordable housing, limited employment opportunities, insufficient wages, no medical insurance, or inadequate welfare benefits. Youth may become homeless while still with their families, but may be separated from their families by the shelter, transitional housing, or child welfare policies.”

The problem of unemployment and underemployment affects all youth, including those formerly in foster care. The National Network for Youth says unprecedented levels of youth are “disconnected from the workforce”; about 50 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 are currently employed. They blame the recession for cutting out 2.7 million jobs for people ages 16 to 24.

An estimated 20,000 Americans age out of foster care each year, and they are more likely than their peers to become homeless. The National Center for Housing and Child Welfare estimates that 25 percent of these young people experience homelessness within four years of leaving foster care, and even more are precariously housed. Yet a 2014 study of 656 homeless youth ages 14 to 21 who participated in the Street Outreach Program showed that more than half had stayed in a foster home or group home.

One reason for this problem is that these young people are less likely to graduate from high school or college, according to the National Network for Youth. “Limited support coupled with low educational attainment results in limited employment opportunities and leads to unemployment and financial instability, which contributes to homelessness,” the organization stated. “Low earning potential and instability with a general shortage of affordable housing results in youth couch-surfing in order to avoid sleeping on the streets.”

Unique Vulnerabilities

The risks associated with youth homelessness mirror those of adults—including unmet basic food and shelter needs, untreated mental health disorders, substance use, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV infection, survival sex, physical victimization, and suicide. But many of these issues are intensified for young people.

The Street Outreach Program Data Collection Project revealed that young people commonly experience victimization while they’re homeless:

These numbers were higher in Toronto’s Without a Home study, which showed 68 percent of respondents had been victims of a crime, and nearly 60 percent reported violent victimization, including high rates of sexual assault. Young women (37 percent) and transgender/gender non-binary youth (41 percent) reported higher levels of sexual assault over the previous 12 months.

In the study The Health of Street Youth: A Canadian Perspective, J.F. Boivin and colleagues found that the longer youth are homeless, the more they’re exposed to the risks of sexual and economic exploitation. More time on the streets also increases the likelihood of experiencing trauma, declining health, nutritional vulnerability, and addictions.

Mental health struggles go hand in hand with life on the streets since these young people are regularly exposed to sexual and physical violence. The Without a Home authors found these threats make young people more than three times as likely to experience high mental health risks. The majority of youth surveyed (85 percent) reported high symptoms of distress, and 42 percent had attempted suicide at least once.

Because the human trafficking industry targets young people, homeless youth are especially vulnerable to being lured into the trade. “Homeless youth are vulnerable to both sex and labor trafficking because they tend to experience a higher rate of the primary risk factors to trafficking: poverty, unemployment, a history of sexual abuse, and a history of mental health issues,” writes Laura Murphy, author of the study Labor and Sex Trafficking Among Homeless Youth: A Ten-City Study. “A confluence of factors made the homeless youth we interviewed vulnerable to both sex and labor traffickers who preyed on their need. It also made them more likely to turn to the sex trade for survival.”

Educational Challenges

(c) ShutterstockBeyond these severe issues, homeless youth also face a significant disruption in their education since they are transient. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that youth who experience homelessness score worse on reading and math aptitude tests and are nearly twice as susceptible to behavioral problems like hyperactivity.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 75 percent of homeless youth drop out of school if they haven’t already. The dropout rate for Canadian homeless youth is 53 percent, whereas for housed youth it’s below 9 percent, the Canadian Without a Home study showed. (Although of those who dropped out, 73 percent would like to return to school.)

Considering that a homeless child loses his or her opportunity to learn and then contribute valuable skills to society, the cost adds up to more than $700,000 in taxpayer dollars over the course of a lifetime, according to a 2012 joint study by Columbia University and the City University of New York. This figure takes into account lost earnings and tax revenues, along with statistically higher costs for criminal justice, health care, and welfare.


Youth homelessness is a widespread issue with long-term negative implications for society. Thankfully, because of increased awareness, the government and nonprofits are seeking ways to address it. One agency is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“We’re working with our local partners to support innovative new approaches to help young people find stable housing, break the cycle of homelessness, and lead them on a path to self-sufficiency,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson. According to a July 2018 HUD report, the department has awarded $43 million to 11 local communities through its Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program to help end youth homelessness.

“HUD is awarding grants to communities where local applicants expressed their own vision for ending youth homelessness, including San Diego, Boston, and northwest Minnesota. The grantees are trying various tactics to tackle youth homelessness, including collaborating with various service organizations, establishing crisis housing, and preventing youth from exiting public systems of care—such as child welfare and juvenile justice—into homelessness.”

In Canada, those who seek to end youth homelessness have challenged government leaders to focus on prevention. “We cannot end youth homelessness without stopping the flow into homelessness,” wrote Stephen Gaetz. “It is clear that our efforts need to shift from a prolonged crisis response to ensuring that each young person’s experience of homelessness is rare, brief, and non-recurring.”

“We cannot end youth homelessness without stopping the flow into homelessness,” wrote Stephen Gaetz. “It is clear that our efforts need to shift from a prolonged crisis response to ensuring that each young person’s experience of homelessness is rare, brief, and nonrecurring.”

One component of this is helping young people at risk of homelessness reconnect with family members through conflict mediation. A second tactic, offering early intervention programs, gives youth access to services and supports at school and community centers, and through help lines and centralized intake. Third, partnerships based on collaborations between schools and local community services can help the education system identify and quickly intervene when young people are at risk of homelessness or dropping out of school. The final component addresses youth in foster care.

“To reduce the risk that young people transitioning from care become homeless, we need to do more than reform child protection laws or extend the age of care. Effective strategies must involve partnerships between government, child protection services, and experienced community-based service providers to transform the system for these youth,” according to Without a Home.

Last July Secretary Carson announced an initiative focused on young people aging out of foster care. “HUD’s new Foster Youth to Independence Initiative will offer housing vouchers to local public housing authorities to prevent or end homelessness among young adults under the age of 25 who are [leaving], or have recently left, the foster care system without a home to go to,” according to HUD.

Children’s Rights, a U.S. watchdog organization that advocates on behalf of abused and neglected children, has focused its attention on helping foster youth as well. The group has learned that youth who receive foster care through age 21 have a reduced risk of homelessness and pursue more education and higher lifetime earnings.

“Our legal advocacy has secured reforms in places like New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, where kids can now stay in state care and receive services past their 18th birthdays,” the website states. “This gives child welfare workers more time to help young people plan for their futures.”

What can those involved in rescue work do? Youth interviewed in the Street Outreach Program Data Collection Project offered some helpful ideas. First, more than 50 percent of the youth said they didn’t know where to go to receive help. So consider increasing advertising where youth will see it, such as on social media and at bus stations. Second, get better training for your staff on how to be more welcoming and engaging to youth.

Finally, offer help from trained staff on navigating bureaucracy related to obtaining personal records and proof of identity. As God directs unsheltered young people to your doors, may you be equipped to offer them practical help as well as hope in Jesus’ name.

Natalee is a freelance writer and editor and a fulltime mother of two. She lives in Colorado Springs.

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This article originally appeared in the November-December 2019 issue of INSTIGATE magazine. © Citygate Network, All rights reserved. Please email for additional permissions.