By Edysmar Diaz-Cruz
Samantha Diaz ran away from home at age sixteen. She lived in a foster home that was so abusive that she preferred homelessness. She spent days wandering the streets with a gang of friends, depending on strangers’ compassion and their willingness to give money to buy food. They were all runaways, escaping the people who pledged to help them, but hurt them instead.
Stories such as this are certainly not uncommon. As of now, 39% of the American homeless population is younger than 18 years old, according to National Coalition for the Homeless.
But if there are so many homeless teens, why don’t we see them?
Two words: doubling up (some may know it as couch-surfing). Homeless teens often turn to their friends for shelter, spending different nights at different locations.
“It’s not just friends, it can be moving in with grandparents,” said Mrs. Duran, the Trust Counselor at Miami Lakes Educational Center. “In addition to people who are doubled up, there are unaccompanied minors.”
Youths under the age of eighteen who lack parental, foster, or institutional care can be classified as “unaccompanied”.
These teenagers end up homeless mainly because of three interconnected reasons: family problems, economic problems, and residential instability.
Family problems can include sexual, physical, and/or emotional abuse. As reported by 1800runaway.org, 34% of runaway youth reported sexual abuse before leaving home and 43% of runaway youth reported physical abuse; addiction within the family can cause chains of events that result in teenagers on the streets.
In regards to home life, Ely (fake name), a student at Miami Lakes Educational Center whom once fled from home and spent a few days homeless, said, “I could’ve possibly been hurt, but it was still better compared to going home.”
She was running away from the broken relationships in her home.
Parental neglect also plays a role; there have been cases in which parents cannot or will not provide their children with basic essentials, as well as parents who simply don’t care about whether or not their children are living in a home.
Over 50% of young people in shelters and on the streets reported that their parents told them to leave or knew they were leaving and didn’t care, according to the book Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope by Kevin Ryan and Tina Kelley.
Other teens end up homeless because of economic problems. There are parents who lose their jobs, which may lead to the loss of a home, which can result in the separation of teenagers from their family through shelter, transitional housing, or child welfare policies.
Surprisingly, the foster home system drastically correlates with homeless youth ranging from ages 18 through the early 20s. Teenagers brought up in foster homes are not prepared when they are discharged from the system the moment they turn eighteen. They are discharged with no housing or and without income support to sustain themselves.
Homeless youth face many obstacles. Lack of a home address makes it hard for them to attend school, and they often have poor physical health due to unhealthy diets, malnutrition and exposure.
Homeless youth are also high risk for contracting AIDS & STDs; they are prone to physical and sexual abuse, and they are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and suicide attempts due to the increased exposure to violence while living on their own.
“I had to protect myself from pedophiles,” Ely said. “It’s funny how I thought I wouldn’t run into to one though. It was only my first day, and I already ran into one.”
There are programs that provide help and assistance to homeless youth in need of help. Some are Project Upstart, Stand Up For Kids, and Project Safe. Despite this, it is hard to get these services to those who need it.
“Sometimes if we aren’t told, we don’t know,” said Mrs. Duran.
So what can be done to help the homeless youth? Well, if you are or if you know someone who is doubled up or unaccompanied, the answer is as simple as telling someone like Ms. Duran, a Trust Counselor. People like her can help the homeless get gain access to services that provide food, uniforms, housing, bus-cards, and so much more.
“There is money; there are things that we can do,” said Mrs. Duran.