PORTLAND — They are hard to see and harder to count. Most of the time we don’t know when they’re right in front of us.

They are homeless and not-quite-homeless youths.

These young men and women in their teens and early 20s are on the verge of the rest of their adult lives, yet usually can’t tell from day to day where they will sleep or eat.

November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month – and it is ironic that even those of us who serve this population have an incomplete understanding of how pervasive a problem it is. We know that homelessness among young people is a consequence of many things that have gone wrong in a young person’s life. We also know that young people leave unsafe and intolerable family homes, drifting from address to address, and are therefore not technically homeless.

And we are learning more about what these young people need in their lives to survive and become self-sufficient.

There are studies upon studies from federal and state agencies about the plight of what some call “unaccompanied youth.” Definitions vary, the ages studied vary, yet all conclude that we can only count the officially homeless youth – those living in shelters and connected to services in their communities. Teens who have left bad situations for potentially worse scenarios – and a different couch or floor each night – do not show up in statistics. But there are estimates.

One of the more comprehensive analyses comes from the 2010 Report “Opening Doors” from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, comprised of staff from 19 federal agencies such as the departments of Labor, Education and HUD. It presents troubling trends:

In the 2008-09 school year, public schools across the country estimated that 939,903 enrolled students were homeless, an 18 percent increase from the prior year.

Municipalities estimate that each night roughly 110,000 young people ages 12 to 24 are living on the street or in other public places, or in abandoned buildings or cars.

Of the 30,000 youths over age 16 who age out of foster care each year, one-quarter will experience homelessness within four years.

Two-thirds of 18- to 20-year-old homeless youths who enlisted for public services had no high school diploma or GED.

To improve safety and a connection to food and health care we can support expanded teen-only shelters such as Preble Street’s recently announced plans for its Lighthouse Shelter. Acknowledging how abuse and neglect pervade their experience, we can also teach these youths how to lead themselves out of dangerous situations and turn their lives around. Nearly 100 students over the past two years have found success at the alternative high school run by Portland-based LearningWorks through an emphasis on:

Connections to supportive and trustworthy adults: Having at least one caring relationship with a teacher, mentor, coach or family friend who cares about the future of a young person is a critical factor in preventing homelessness.

Leadership: Teaching young people how to take responsibility for themselves and for others – on the job and in the community – motivates them to care about others. Expecting them to be a part of a whole and healthy community is as important as an education or GED.

Independent living skills and training: Learning how to navigate in society without adults teaching the basics is a challenge – knowing how to shop for and cook food economically, present oneself for a job interview, rent an apartment, or register for school makes a big difference to a teen who is on his or her own.

Employment and education: Traditional schooling may not work for traumatized young people. Homework assignments won’t take priority on the survival spectrum. Alternative education leading to a GED with an expansive curriculum focus on specific job skills, resume writing and interviewing techniques may lead to an entry-level position that ultimately prevents homelessness.

LearningWorks is essentially the last resort for these youths, and each year we see results in the number of GEDs awarded, job placements and young lives re-set. These young people, many of whom are homeless or at high risk of homelessness, are turning their lives around and contributing to society, as opposed to being counted.

Think about them as the air chills and we celebrate the holidays. But also think about them all year long, knowing that we can provide these young adults with the tools to get out of shelters and off of multiple couches and into a job.


– Special to the Press Herald