Down and Out in NWA
When I meet with new clients, I always take a few minutes to have them fill out a registration form. It doesn't require anything fancy, no extensive medical history (that comes later), just basic information like, name, number and address. I was puzzled earlier this year when I noticed a teen client who seemed to be stuck on one of the simple questions.
"Is everything all right?" I asked him.
"I'm not sure what to put on the address line."
"Just put wherever you're living now."
He looked back down at the paper, but I could tell that he was not any less troubled by my explanation. Finally, he said, "What do I put if I don't have a place to live?"
In my line of work, there are a lot of heart breaking moments, but this was of the big ones for me this year. The number of homeless youth (ages 12-24) in America is growing. In 2017, San Diego saw a 39% jump in homeless youth over the previous year, and in Atlanta this number nearly tripled. There are a lot of reasons for this: families living in poverty, the opioid epidemic, disruptive family structures, the lack of jobs for young people. A little over four million youth experience homelessness each year and about a quarter of these are on their own, without family or a guardian.
Without reliable shelter, homeless youth are at risk for being exposed to substance use, STDs, and sexual exploitation. They are probably also struggling to meet basic food and health needs.
It is not uncommon for people to believe that young people are responsible for their homeless situation. They might assume that a homeless teen has poor behavior, substance abuse issues, or problems with authority. However, often, a teen feels safer on the streets than in their own home. Their home could be abusive. They could be living with adults who have mental health or substance issues. Family conflict and family dynamics, are risk factors for youth homelessness, as are identifying with the LGBTQ community, losing a parent, or experiencing abuse and neglect. I've written before that teens lack the experience, and sometimes even the capacity, to judge the consequences of their actions, and this can also play a part in their homelessness. Their age and development can prevent them from speaking up and asking for help, because they believe that they can manage their life on their own. I am sharing all of this with you, because I think it's important for us to know all the members of our community, especially those who are the most vulnerable, and in need of our help. At this time of year I know many of you are thinking about how to give back, and I want to encourage you to consider giving to TASC's Teen Thrive program. This program is working to end youth homelessness in Northwest Arkansas. It identifies teens at risk for homelessness (or who are homeless already, like my client earlier this year), and connects them to needed resources in the community, including housing referrals, mental health services, food, and job training and assistance. I truly believe teens are resilient and have a deep desire to be the best adult possible. If you'd like to support TASC's mission to assist teens, you can donate here.