According to the 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, 9% of the U.S. homeless population (or ~50,000 individuals) is between the ages of 18 and 24. Most of these young people, nearly 32,000, were counted as ‘unaccompanied youth.’ This term encompasses young adults living on the streets or in unstable housing without the presence of a family. A recent homeless count in Washington, D.C. identified 211 unaccompanied youth between the ages of 18 and 24.
To understand the experiences of young adults experiencing homelessness in Washington, D.C., Pathways to Housing teamed up with the Catholic University of America’s National Catholic School of Social Service (NCSSS) to conduct a qualitative research study. Under the guidance of Dr. Linda Plitt Donaldson, graduate social work students within the NCSSS hit the streets to interview these young adults as part of a fall semester class on homelessness in the U.S. Semi-structured interviews were conducted to understand the precipitating factors and current experiences of the youths’ homelessness, as well as to learn about the specific services that might support young adults in getting into stable housing.
Pathways outreach workers trained students in identifying and approaching young adults in locations around the city. The team interviewed 57 young adults between the ages of 18 and 30, with a mean age of 22. Of these 57 young adults, 27 reported that this was their first time experiencing homelessness. Most reported that they stay and sleep on the streets overnight while others sleep at shelters, in the homes of family and friends, or in abandoned houses. At the time of the interviews, the young adults reported having been homeless between four days and 15 years, with an average length of time in homelessness of approximately three years.
During the interviews, the young adults detailed situations that precipitated their current experiences of homelessness. Many of these accounts included significant trauma and victimization, such as ongoing physical or sexual abuse. Others found themselves on the streets due to poor re-entry planning as they transitioned from foster care or jail. Still, others reported having left their last housing situation of their own will – feeling as though they were a burden to family or due to overcrowding in the home. Overwhelmingly, most reported that their most recent experience of homelessness resulted from being “kicked out” of their home by a family member. For some of the youth, this resulted from “not getting along with” another member of the household. For others, this followed rape or other forms of abuse perpetuated by a family member or a family member’s significant other.
The young adults shared the range of coping strategies they use to survive on the streets of D.C. Many reported relying on friends and family for resources, such as occasional meals, showers, or a place to stay. Others were honest about activities they engage in to “just to get by”, such as stealing or selling drugs. However, amid their challenges and uncertain circumstances, many spoke of their strides to set goals for themselves and a drive to maintain hope for the future.
When asked about the single most important thing that would help them overcome homelessness, the young adults overwhelmingly advocated for the availability of more affordable housing. This aligns with a recent statement made by Michael Ferrell, the executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, in an article by the New York Times detailing challenges associated with housing D.C.’s homeless population. Ferrell stated that the difficulty is not the increase of homeless individuals as much as it is a lack of affordable housing in D.C.
In advocating for the self-professed needs of D.C.’s unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness, the NCSSS team offers the following recommendations:
- increase the availability of affordable housing and supports to access housing;
- increase opportunities for employment and education;
- increase the availability of trauma-informed mental health and social supports;
- increase service assistance to obtain vital documentation, such as birth certificates and identification cards;
- increase the number of drop-in centers; and
- increase implementation of Critical Time Intervention (CTI) to prevent homelessness for young adults exiting foster care, incarceration, or other institutions.
A final recommendation includes increasing efforts to support families to prevent youth homelessness. Forty out of 57 (70%) of the young adults participating in this study talked specifically about challenging family environments that precipitated their most recent experience of homelessness. Respondents were often kicked out of their homes or left on their own due to crowded or toxic family environments. For other respondents, homelessness resulted after the death of a family member, causing the loss of their home. Still others aged out of foster care. Families need help to address root causes of homelessness, such as the lack of affordable housing, the lack of living wage jobs with benefits, relationship conflict, and substance abuse. Programs are needed to foster community engagement and support for these families within the neighborhoods in which they live.
When the young adults were asked what the city could do to assist in getting people off the streets, they requested that service providers step up their game in helping to navigate the housing process and be willing to “take a chance” on them. The participants offered their own words of advice with regard to ending homelessness among young adults in Washington, D.C.:
“Don’t give up…sometimes I give up on myself.”
“Focus on hands up, not hands out. Help people develop skills.”
“Take a chance on people. I just want someone to take a chance on me. Not everybody is trying to get one over on the system.”
Blog Post Author: Bonnie L. McIntyre, PhD student within the Catholic University of America National Catholic School of Social Services (pictured right)