by Ally Walker – Research Assistant
The experience of homeless individuals, youth or adults, is as multifaceted and unique as each person. There is not one type of young person who is homeless or one cause for their homelessness. COHRE had the pleasure of sitting down with Cheryl Secorski, Homeless Programs Specialist for Youth at the state of Colorado’s Office of Homeless Youth Services, to get a better understanding of youth homelessness, how the State of Colorado works to prevent homelessness and what people can do to help.
Who are homeless youth in Colorado?
Every January, a “Point in Time” count takes place around the nation to provide a snapshot of the people experiencing homelessness through a survey. In 2017, Colorado added a youth supplemental survey to the count to get a better understanding of youth homelessness. Here is a glimpse at the experience of homeless youth in Colorado:
- 88% of youth experiencing homelessness are between the ages of 18-24
- 63% are male and 53% of youth participants identified as white, non-Hispanic
- 42% of youth said they had involvement with the foster care system
- Age 17 is when youth are generally more likely to experience homelessness on their own, versus with their parents
What causes homelessness for youth?
While the causes of homelessness vary, Secorski points out that there are specific factors that contribute to homelessness for youth. A lack of a positive relationship with a supportive adult stands out as paramount. Secorski notes that many homeless youth in Colorado become homeless for a number of reasons including: parents asking them to leave, parents’ substance abuse, teen pregnancy, family poverty or any number of other reasons. Abuse of any kind is also a major contributing factor, approximately, 46% of homeless youth are dealing with the trauma of abuse, while also trying to survive on the streets without a support system to fall back on.
How are youth especially vulnerable?
The complex array of services, resources, and systems to navigate would confuse any adult, let alone youth under the age of 24. This makes youth on the streets vulnerable. Secorski points out that of the youth in Colorado who experience homelessness, only 40% actually know what services are available to them and how to use them.
Many homeless young people experience what Secorski calls “hidden” homelessness. She explains that many youth are afraid of “going into the system” (foster care/child welfare), so they hide or couch surf to remain out of view. This means that youth may miss out on education and don’t have access to the plethora of services out there for them. They feel there is a stigma attached with homelessness and, while many youth end up homeless in the process of trying to escape abuse, they often feel there is still a negative connotation and fear will follow them for the rest of their lives.
What is Colorado doing to prevent/mitigate youth homelessness?
Colorado is one of only three states in the US that has an Office for Homeless Youth Services within state government. As such, they shine an important spotlight on issues specific to young people. The Office of Homeless Youth Services targets their work to address the general causes of homelessness, focusing specifically on housing and relationships with a supportive adults.
Secorski explains that all of the direct assistance offered to youth through the Office of Homeless Youth Services like housing vouchers comes with case management. In this way, youth receive stable housing for at least 36 months, and they are connected with an adult who helps them to set goals, look for work or go to school, and break the cycle of homelessness.
The Office of Homeless Youth Services centralizes resources for homeless prevention across Colorado, coordinates stakeholders and encourages collaboration through the Advisory Council for Homeless Youth Services, and guides a targeted, data driven approach to address specific challenges faced by youth.
What can you do to help?
Secorski gives concrete steps that anyone can take to help young people who experience homelessness:
- Volunteer at a shelter, soup kitchen or nonprofit providing services to homeless people.
- Mentor a young person to ensure a child has a positive relationship with an adult.
- Donate to a homeless service provider.
- Volunteer to collect surveys for the “Point in Time Count” in January.
Despite the challenges, Secorski remains optimistic. She argues for intervention and holistic, long-term solutions, noting that “if we can make the experience of youth homelessness as short as possible, we can cut off adult homelessness,” and make sure homelessness is not a learned experience. Together, we can and end youth homelessness.