It’s estimated that anywhere from 1.8 million to 2.1 million young people are homeless each year in the U.S., and more of them reside in California than anywhere else. In San Francisco alone, an estimated 5,700 youth are homeless each year, according to Larkin Street Youth Services.
But not all of those people would call themselves “homeless” if asked. That’s among the most revealing findings of a massive effort to document California’s homeless youth population, as part of the state’s effort to develop a nuanced response. Researchers found that black youth without permanent homes don’t often use the word “homeless” to describe themselves. The study found that black youth “expressed a strong sense that homelessness was shameful and to be hidden at all costs.”
Researchers and policymakers are lifting up these kinds of details about homelessness as California launches a new state action plan to combat youth homelessness. The plan was commissioned by state Sen. Carol Liu and aims to put the state in line with a federal action plan to combat homelessness that was released in 2010. Advocates hope the state’s new legislature will begin to implement it in its new two-year session which began this week.
“In terms of street outreach, it’s critical to use the language of community,” says Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project and author of the new report. “One recommendation we made in the report was to emphasize what services you’re offering so people can self select if it’s something they need, whether it’s job readiness or housing.
“It really makes a difference betwween opening up convesation and not reaching out to that young person at all.”
The study also found that black youth who live on the streets are often still in touch with their family members, while estrangements tend to be more permanent among white youth. That was identified by researchers as an opportunity for family intervention. A theme throughout the research was one that some service providers and families have themselves been stressing for years: that homelessness can be seen and addressed as a collective problem instead of an individual hardship.
“One of the things we felt was that the narrative of homeless youth of color isn’t often told,” said Hyatt. “People often think of homeless youth as a homogenous group that requires the same interventions, but there are unique needs.”
The report’s release comes at a critical juncture. Overall, unemployment rates for young people of color have continued to rise even as the worst of the economic downturn begins to fade for some of the country. A recent study from Generation Opportunity found that the overall jobless rate for teens is 11.5 percent and more than double that—22.1 percent—for younger black Americans.
That reality has been coupled with what some advocates have noted is the increased criminalization of young people of color and the poor in public spaces. In 2010, San Francisco voters approved a measure known as the “Sit/Lie” ordinance that prohibits people from sitting or laying on public sidewalks. The law was widely criticized for targeting homeless communities, and a 2012 study from the San Francisco Chronicle found that the law was being severely implemented in a section of the city long known for its homeless population.
California’s new action plan is heavy on recommendations but, so far, short on specifics. In many ways, that’s by design, according to researchers. Because of the diversity of homeless youth communities, addressing each one can and should look different. But the big test will come as the state’s lawmakers decide whether to take on the issue.
“[California’s] response needs to be the largest because the size and scope of problem is much greatter than in other areas,” says Hyatt.