Millions of Youth Are Homeless for More Than Month At a Time, New Study Finds

WASHINGTON — Nearly one in 30 teens and one in 10 young adults experienced homelessness in the past year, a groundbreaking new study has found.

Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall interviewed more than 26,000 people from all over the country over the past year. They found that 4.3 percent of youths 13 to 17 years old reported at least one instance of homelessness; nearly 10 percent of young adults 18 to 25 years old had experienced homelessness.

The study, “Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America,” is one of the largest of its kind ever attempted. It also offers a wider look at what one researcher called the “spectrum” of homelessness — everything from sleeping on the streets to “couch surfing.”

“We are capturing homelessness that doesn’t fit with most people’s images of homelessness,” said Matt Morton, who helped lead the study. “The scale has not been highlighted. This helps capture the fluidity of it.”

The study, released today, is the first in a series of reports that Chapin Hill plans.

Morton and his co-authors estimate that at least 700,000 teenagers and 3.5 million young adults have been homeless in the past year. Nor was the experience all that temporary: Nearly three-quarters of youth surveyed were homeless for more than a month, the study reports.

The experiences may differ greatly, but the prevalence doesn’t seem to change much from cities to countryside, the study said. Some 9.6 percent of rural young adults experienced homelessness last year compared to 9.2 percent of urban young adults; 4.4 percent of rural teens suffered homelessness last year, compared to 4.2 percent of teens in urban America.

“It’s really a national problem,” Morton said.

Researchers also crunched the numbers behind youths’ homeless risk factors:

  • Education appeared to be the biggest factor. Youth without a high school diploma or GED had a 346 percent higher risk of winding up homeless than youth who stayed in school;
  • Unmarried young people with children were 200 percent more likely to suffer homelessness;
  • Youth in poor families were 162 percent more likely to experience homelessness;
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender youth were 120 percent more likely to wind up homeless;
  • African-American youth were 83 percent more likely to experience homelessness; and
  • Latino youth were 33 percent more likely to suffer homelessness.

Perhaps most alarming, Morton said, researchers found that nearly half the youths who went homeless in the previous year were doing so for the first time. For Morton, that means child welfare officials must engage early in preventing homelessness. “We cannot solve a problem that dynamic, that cyclical, without significant intervention upstream,” he said.

Whatever the report’s specific policy recommendations, it’s “a spectacular” way to open an important conversation, said Ruth Anne White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare in College Park, Maryland.

“Those numbers are sort of staggering. Even though I’m steeped in this, I’m just blown away,” she said. “I’m glad Chapin Hall got this on paper. This is kicking off a really important conversation.”

Despite researchers’ hopes that Congress will increase funding for and create new “housing interventions,” White is skeptical. Existing law may already be “flexible” enough for child welfare bureaucrats to get help to youths who need it, she said. What matter is getting the bureaucracy moving.

“There are kids that have dozens of foster care placements. In any event, it’s a very flexible stream of funding and I’m not sure why it doesn’t figure more prominently in the report,” she said.

“The main emphasis is to use existing funds,” White added. “I don’t think there’s any taxpayer who thinks that [funds] shouldn’t be automatically triggered when there’s a kid on the street. What are we doing with all that money?”

The report’s recommendations are:

  • “Conduct national estimates of youth homelessness biennially to track our progress in ending youth homelessness.
  • “Fund housing interventions, services and prevention efforts in accordance with the scale of youth homelessness, accounting for different needs.
  • “Federal policy should encourage assessment and service delivery decisions that are responsive to the diversity and fluidity circumstances among youth experiencing homelessness.
  • “Build prevention efforts in systems where youth likely to experience homelessness are in our care: child welfare, juvenile justice and education.”
  • “Acknowledge unique developmental and housing needs for a young population and adapt services to meet those needs.”
  • “Tailor supports for rural youth experiencing homelessness to account for more limited service infrastructure over a larger terrain.”
  • “Target strategies to address the disproportionate risk for homelessness among special subpopulations, including pregnant and parenting, LGBT, African-American and Hispanic youth, and young people without high school diplomas.”

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State Trends Show Fewer Young People Tried As Adults, New Report Says

WASHINGTON — The number of young people locked into adult jails and prisons has plummeted nearly two-thirds since 2009 and the number automatically sent to adult courts for criminal trials has fallen by nearly half from 2007 to 2014, a new report says.

The numbers of youth tried as adults will likely fall even further by 2020, when four states — Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina and New York — fully implement reform laws passed over the last few years, said the new report from the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

The statistics are unalloyed victory for juvenile justice reform advocates, said Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign. “We have a lot to celebrate,” she said. “We have the majority of states not only changing one law but changing a lot of laws that treat kids like kids. That is something to celebrate.”

Once New York and North Carolina implement their laws, it will mark the first time since juvenile courts were created more than a century ago that no state will automatically try 16-year-olds as adults.

Nine states and the District of Columbia all passed laws limited or barring youthful offenders from being put in adult jails. New York and Oregon banned the practice outright this year.

Mistrett’s group will release the report formally this  morning in Washington. She’ll be joined by Olivia Brown, a teenager who was charged as an adult for a school fight, and senators from two states that have recently begun ambitious reform efforts of their own — Vermont’s Dick Sears, a Democrat, and South Carolina’s Gerald Malloy, a Democrat. Brown became for many the face of the campaign to “raise the age” of adult prosecution in North Carolina.

“The science we’re familiar with now tells us we continue to grow and age beyond childhood,” Malloy said. Quoting Frederick Douglass that “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” Malloy led efforts to pass state legislation to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction for most crimes from 17 to 18 years old. The legislation passed unanimously but must still be properly funded, by 2019, to take effect.

“There are a mountain of things we can do. They say we save children one child at a time,” Malloy said. The reform “also tells us a little bit about who we are as a people. The idea is to try to keep children from behind the fence.”

Sears’ Vermont was hailed by the Campaign for “a number of juvenile justice reforms over the last two years,” the report says. Children under 11 will be subject to juvenile court no matter what and only those older than 16 and charged with “the Big 12” felonies, such as murder, rape, etc., will face the prospect of an adult prosecution.

“Many of these kids, they carry around the collateral consequences of crime for the rest of their lives,” Sears said. “Now they’ll be given a second chance.”

For all the good news, Mistrett said she hopes no one thinks advocates can — or will — rest on their laurels. “We still have a lot of work to do,” she said.

Among the challenges remaining are the often opaque rules about who gets to determine which children will be prosecuted as adults — and the often-shocking racial disparities that result from that opacity, Mistrett said. And the backlash politics of the Trump administration shows “just how easy it is to get back to the ‘get tough’ messaging,” she said.

Still, she is hopeful that the years of work by reform advocates has helped Americans reach a different level of consciousness about crime, punishment and young people.

“I think the general public is finally realizing that we can’t incarcerate ourselves out of the problem of crime,” Mistrett said.

Shining a Light in the Darkness of Prison

John Last 1Reading saved my life. I can only guess at how many books I read in my nearly 25 years of incarceration. I feel certain that it is easily over a thousand. For me, the longer and more detailed the book was the better. One perfect book was To Kill a Mockingbird. I remember squatting in the hallway outside of my room after lights out so I could finish the last few pages. Dune was another favorite that I read over and over. I would recite its litany against fear, which begins, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer…” But the greatest book was Les Miserables. When Jean Valjean, towards the end of his life, says, “To die is nothing, but it is terrible not to live,” a depth of connection transfixed me completely and tears streamed down my face. These worlds, and many more, helped keep me sane and alive, and gave me a way to continue to learn about and experience life.

I imagine that reading serves this function for many people, but there is something particularly powerful about its power in the darkness of prison. It is a light that shines because of the help of many people, from family members and librarians to non profits that send books to prisoners.

A few weeks ago, I met some folks who shine this light into a particularly dark corner of the prison system. They were from the Free Minds Book Club, a Washington, D.C.-based non profit that serves juveniles who are being held as adults in the D.C. jail. Free Minds Book Club runs two weekly writing workshops for them in the jail. They encourage the kids to express themselves in poetry and prose and to share their work with their peers. The results have been terrific. For some of the kids, it is the first time that they have been asked to really share themselves. They also read books and have discussions, just like book clubs around the world. Right now they are reading Muchacho by LouAnne Johnson, author of Dangerous Minds.

Besides the book club and the writing classes the group holds workshops, called On the Same Page, around the community. They share the writings of the kids and use them as a springboard for starting discussions about ways to reduce violence and crime. Another program is called Write Night, where volunteers read the kids’ work and write their responses, which the kids get to see later.

Their work doesn’t end at the jail. The program has been running for 10 years, and now many of the participants are in federal prison or have been released. These kids, because of where they live, can be shipped all over the country. But Free Minds continues to support these young men, some of whom may spend their entire lives in prison. For some of the young men, Free Minds is their only link home.

Free Minds also distributes a regular collection of writing from their members around the country, called The Connect. It is a monthly newsletter made up of writing, articles and poems from staff, kids who have come home, kids still on the inside, family and community members. It offers advice, book reviews and news from home. Tara Libert, cofounder, writes, “…most of all [it offers] encouragement so our members don’t feel like no one cares or [that] they are ‘out of sight, out of mind.’” Recently five of their writers comprised the editorial board for a new literary journal; They Call Me 229-359. It contains submissions from around the country.

There isn’t enough room in this space to talk about everything they do, so I encourage you to go to their site or check out their Facebook page. They maintain a blog where they post members’ poems each week. You can go there and leave comments, which will then be printed and mailed to the poets in federal prison. It is a kind of virtual Write Night, and serves the same purpose of connecting these youngsters with people on the outside. Free Minds is a group of people who are doing restorative justice week in and week out, and they deserve our support. I leave you with a poem by one of Free Mind’s contributors:

My Face

MARCH 1, 2012

I think my face is only a disguise
2 hide the pain you cannot see
Because if my face was my heart
You’ll probably see a different me
And another half of me is bitter
And another half is sweet
But I try 2 keep
My skeletons buried 6 feet
I am only 18 but my life is so deep
But from the view of my face
My secrets are kept 4 keeps…