Homeless But Not Hopeless

Youth homelessness is on the rise in the United States, and the numbers aren’t pretty. One in 30 kids (nearly 2.5 million children) of K-12 school age are now homeless in the US, according to a study by the National Center on Family Homelessness. (A distressing enough story to get a pre-teen journalist to write about it for IndyKids.) As per UNICEF, the USA has a GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of $16.8 trillion, yet has the developed world’s second highest rate of child poverty.

Depressing numbers to be sure. But rather than feel completely hopeless, there are people out there making a difference, and teens who are fighting through the obstacles to build better lives for themselves. Three such stories are at the center of the new film The Homestretch.

But as David Bowie sang, “It Ain’t Easy.” None of these kids can do it all on their own, as determined as they are.

First, here are a few additional stories and more background, that serve as good companions to The Homestretch.

  • CNN’s John Sutter put together a super interactive feature about homeless kids in wealthy Silicon Valley (where the median income is $30K higher than the national average). It includes a family of four with both parents working yet are still homeless, as well as glimpses of other young people living in cramped spaces and barely surviving while living down the street from some of the world’s wealthiest tech companies. “How is it that we’re in Silicon Valley and we’re working, and we’re in this situation,” a mom named Stacey wonders aloud. Her son is in junior high school while they live in a homeless shelter, and he articulates the challenges of not worrying about getting made fun of for not having a place to live.
  • As shown in The Homestretch, one absolutely critical tool in a homeless teen’s life is a cell phone. A survey posted in the Journal of Urban Health found that about 62% of homeless teens own a cell. While it may seem like a luxury item compared with food or shelter, Eric Rice, PhD, Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work and creator of the survey, noted: “Having a phone can be an opportunity for making strides toward a stable life. In my study I found that many of the youth who owned cell phones were using them to try to improve their situation. About 40 percent of the youth said they were using their phone to try to get a job. About a quarter of the youth also told me that they were using their phones to keep up with a social worker helping them to get off the streets.”
  • With that in mind, there are many ways one can donate a working cell phone, such as how Doorways for Women and Families partnered with Cellular Recycler. We recommend contacting your local shelter or youth services program to see if they have a similar program or recommendation. And see the end of this post for other ways you can help homeless youth.


New Solutions

In 1992, a psychologist at New York University named Sam Tsemberis decided to test a new model. His idea was to just give the chronically homeless a place to live, on a permanent basis, without making them pass any tests or attend any programs or fill out any forms.

“Okay,” Tsemberis recalls thinking, “they’re schizophrenic, alcoholic, traumatized, brain damaged. What if we don’t make them pass any tests or fill out any forms? They aren’t any good at that stuff. Inability to pass tests and fill out forms was a large part of how they ended up homeless in the first place. Why not just give them a place to live and offer them free counseling and therapy, health care, and let them decide if they want to participate? Why not treat chronically homeless people as human beings and members of our community who have a basic right to housing and health care?”

A key quote from the piece about this groundbreaking idea: “The old model was well intentioned but misinformed. You actually need housing to achieve sobriety and stability, not the other way around.”

  • An officer who once lived on the streets himself as a teen now helps Clearwater, Fla. homeless teens, in a touching story of someone overcoming a depressing living situation as a young person to create a new life—and then giving back to others.
  • Here’s a place in Denver doing something innovative, and as an added bonus it involves getting people good coffee, so everyone wins:

Most bosses avoid meddling in their employees’ personal lives, but Madison Chandler and Mark Smesrud are different.

They co-founded Purple Door Coffee, a Denver-based nonprofit that employs young people “who have been homeless and want to leave homelessness behind.” The shop provides a 52-week curriculum, teaching employees practical skills—like budgeting and banking—as well as the know-how to improve their physical, emotional and mental health.

Help More

After watching The Homestretch, you may very well feel moved enough to want to reach out and help those in need. Here are but a few ways you can do that, and places to learn more.

First of all, we recommend checking out the discussion guide created just for the film. In it you’ll find more information on teen homelessness and on some of the organizations seen in the film that are helping tackle the problem.

Here are some of the organizations in the USA who are working hard to help the growing number of kids who are without a permanent place to live:

  • See The Homestretch website for their suggested ways you can take action.
  • The National Network for Youth is working to create a system of agencies, people, and resources to ensure that opportunities for growth, safety, and development are available to youth everywhere.
  • To help lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) homeless youth, consult the True Colors Fund Forty to None Project’s online directory for welcoming and affirming service providers in your area.
  • The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) works with educators, parents, advocates, researchers, and service providers to meet the educational needs of children and youth experiencing homelessness, providing professional development, resources, and training.
  • The non-profit charity StandUp For Kids teaches youth the basic “life skills” so that they can survive off the streets, helping to build a foundation away from the streets and street life. StandUp For Kids offers opportunities to volunteer, sponsor, and donate, and you can find local chapters here.

All of this is merely a drop in the bucket, of course, and the problem seems daunting. But it’s important to keep a human face on the statistics. As Pat, a Chicago school liaison for homeless teens says in The Homestretch, every kid on her list of homeless teens “represents a person who’s going to be awesome someday.”


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