Creative Community Responses to Youth Homelessness
December 6, 2016 | Ryan Berg
Youth homelessness in the United States is an underreported crisis. The statistics are truly startling. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, as many as 1.6 million children are presently homeless.1 In Minnesota, where I am a youth worker, it was recently estimated that 4,080 youth between the ages of 16 and 21 are experiencing homelessness on any given night.2 Youth-specific shelter beds in Minnesota are limited to 108; there are 605 transitional living units for the same population, leaving 3,367 youth without stable housing.3
Youth homelessness is not just an urban problem. Suburban and rural communities throughout the country struggle to provide support to young people experiencing housing instability. Many youth migrate to urban areas where services are more abundant, forcing them to navigate unfamiliar streets and leaving them much more vulnerable.
The predictors of youth homelessness are complex and varied. Oftentimes multiple variables lead to housing instability. Lack of affordable housing, family poverty, family conflict, aging out of foster care, mental illness, and substance abuse within the family are common issues. Add to those our country’s history of social disparities and injustices. Because of these disparities and injustices, indigenous communities and communities of color are going to disproportionately experience long-term homelessness.
Shelters are a necessary component of the fight against housing instability, but they are expensive to build and costly to staff and operate. The US government spends more than $5 billion annually on homeless assistance programs, yet roughly 5 percent of that is allocated to serve homeless youth and children. Communities and service providers need to be creative in providing resources for youth.
One creative approach is the “host home” model.
Avenues for Homeless Youth in Minneapolis runs the GLBT, ConneQT, Minneapolis, and Suburban Host Home programs. The host home programs are an “outside the system” community and a volunteer-based response to youth homelessness. Volunteers open their homes to young people looking for living stability, support with their basic needs, and healthy connections.
Many youth seeking stable housing come out of foster care. Typically, youth have two overriding complaints about the foster care system: they had no say over where they were placed, and the people they lived with were paid to care for them. The host home model in Minneapolis is intentionally small and non-institutional, and these two features are flipped—the young person reads the applications of potential hosts and chooses whom to meet, and all hosts are volunteers rather than paid caregivers. Host homes are thoroughly screened, and the hosts are then trained and provided with ongoing support while they are hosting youth. However, hosts are not officially “licensed,” which provides greater flexibility to address changing needs as they arise.
This model is sustainable because it is volunteer-based and community-created, but it also requires an ongoing examination of who gets the opportunity to volunteer and who has the resources to do so. We strive to be creative about how to support folks who are already informally hosting, or who want to host through our programs but feel they can’t afford to do so.
We also know that systemic and generational oppression are at the root of homelessness in this country. We could—conceivably—come up with 3,367 beds today, and tomorrow we would wake up to find youth homelessness still present in Minnesota. We can’t talk about solving homelessness without tackling economic and racial injustices. Minnesota is known for its service provision, but like many liberal states across the country, it has not been successful at moving beyond white liberalism and charity models to true cultural change—a transformation that recognizes, challenges, and shifts power and privilege.
Service providers need to partner with community organizers to find new ways to support young people. We need to build awareness of youth homelessness so that communities can commit to improving supports for young people and their families—both of origin and of choice. We need to keep seeing the bigger picture, to focus not only on more beds, but also on the systems that create homelessness.
We need to do better.
To learn more about host home programs, please visit www.avenuesforyouth.org.
1 True Colors Fund (2016). Our issue: 40% of youth experiencing homelessness identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Available at https://truecolorsfund.org/our-issue
2 Wilder Research (2013, September). Homelessness in Minnesota: Findings from the 2012 statewide homeless study. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Author.
3 Williams, Q., Oh, Y.T., Zhu, W., Buttke, D., and Hanratty, M. (2015, June). A closer look at youth homelessness in Hennepin County: Final capstone report. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota, Humphrey Institute.