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Is youth homelessness a hopeless problem?

By Sara Langworthy

"I can remember being out walking around late at night, nothing to do, exhausted from a long day of walking, and I would see things that I thought I'd never have to experience. I never thought that one day I might be homeless in Seattle. It's a tough world when you are battling to stay alive on these district streets"

In a single night in January 2013, across the U.S. there were a total of 46,924 unaccompanied homeless youth, approximately 8% of the total homeless population for that night. Of them, 86% were 18-24 year-olds, and 13% were under the age of 18.

Homeless youth are a
particularly vulnerable and invisible population because they are often unaccompanied by family, are runaways, or have been kicked out of the home by their biological or foster families. They might try to keep safe at night by riding the city bus, sleeping in locked porta-potties, or crashing on a friend's couch. Others may live on the street in groups with other homeless youth.

Homelessness is highly related to experiencing poverty, as well as prior experiences of homelessness or housing mobility. Homelessness contributes to increased school absences, higher school mobility, and poorer academic outcomes.

Unsurprisingly, homeless youth are also at higher risk of experiencing both physical and mental health problems such as asthma, gastrointestinal problems, depression, anxiety or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Furthermore, some estimates indicate that by the age of 12, more than 80% of homeless youth have witnessed at least one incident of serious violence, indicating that these youth may be struggling with the aftermath of traumatic experiences.

Many of these youth have experienced abuse or neglect, and youth often report staying in abusive situations because of a lack of alternatives.

Despite these sobering numbers and chilling experiences endured by homeless youth, there is hope. Organizations and communities across the U.S. are working to provide homeless youth with short-term stability, an opportunity to cultivate life purpose and direction, and support for long-term health and wellness. Through this process of supporting youth as they face life challenges and work toward stability and success, communities can foster resilience in them.

One example of an organization working to build resilience in homeless youth is the Zine Project in Seattle. This organization provides a pre-vocational creative writing program for homeless youth in Seattle called "zines" (pronounced Zeens - like magazines). The program is run through a local youth drop-in center, and the goal is to enrich writing skills in youth to contribute to their future job success. The online repository of the poetry of homeless youth is an incredible window into the lives of these often-invisible adolescents.

In reading their stories, I came away thinking that their experience of homelessness does not make them irreparably broken. Thinking of homeless youth from a deficit model does them a severe disservice.

To paraphrase a quote from one of my favorite authors, John Green: (Looking for Alaska)
We need not be hopeless, because they are not irreparably broken.

These young people have skills, talents, abilities, strengths, and assets waiting to be recognized and nurtured. They are a veritable fountain of untapped potential. Those who work with youth who are homeless must recognize that potential, and provide youth with the opportunities to establish healthy long-term patterns for their lives.

-- Sara Langworthy, former policy coordinator,
Children, Youth & Family Consortium,
which is part of the Extension Center for Family Development

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  1. Sara,thanks for your thought provoking post. What thoughts can you offer us in 4-H YD around connecting with youth and organizations who serve homeless youth in our metro area & suburban communities? thoughts on ways to better equip our staff and volunteers to be aware of/support or program with homeless young people, or to build partnerships?

  2. Thanks for your comment Anne. I think there are many ways to go about building partnerships, the first of which is just becoming aware of the great work that's already being done in our communities. For example, organizations like Avenues for Homeless Youth (, Catholic Charities Hope Street Shelter (, or the Otto Bremer Foundation ( are just a few local organizations that all have a focus in this topic area. Reaching out to these organizations to find out of there are potential ways that work already being done by 4-H YD might help to better serve these youth might be a good first step.

  3. Also, in terms of your 2nd question about equipping staff to be more knowledge about this issue, I think learning more about the topic of youth homelessness is key. There are some great resources on the Wilder Foundation’s website about the topic ( At CYFC we also have a few resources in the form of an online eReview research and practice summary (, and videos of past events on the topic ( These resources provide general educational information on the topic, as well as practical suggestions for ways to approach working with youth experiencing homelessness.

  4. Hello Sara,
    We need to talk. I am working with a local shelter to develop some much needed, stable, and positive programming there. Your post has further inspired me to put together a high quality design. The idea is that we have a weekly program - based around youth interested topics, but we also have a few tricks as well to get the discussions and ideas moving. We understand that nature of this type of program, but still are nervous to go ahead. Do you have any advice? Would you be willing to help us out?
    On another note, homelessness in the United States is a very lonely state. Across the world, there are often communities of support, but the United States doesn't really have that inherent support. Do you have any articles you can suggest on that concern?

  5. Another organization that focuses on support, outreach, and advocacy for/to/by homeless youth is Lutheran Social Service (LSS). Contact your local branch and speak to the Youth Empowerment Specialists (isn't that a great job title?!) to learn how we can work together on this issue.
    Here in Brainerd, we in 4-H have partnered (off and on) with a local youth organization that welcomes homeless and other youth to get homework help, engage in some youth programming, and "freely loiter" on its premises. The Brainerd Baxter Youth Center, fondly known as "The Shop," was begun by an LSS Youth Empowerment Specialist who has now just become its Executive Director. More at

  6. Joshua,
    I'd be happy to talk with you more about your ideas and how I might be able to help. I'll contact you directly to set up a time for us to chat.
    Thanks for your input! Sounds like this is another great resource!


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