It should not be news that poverty is the largest driving factor in homelessness among youth, but there you have it. Poverty, family conflict, and abuse are a theme among homeless youth. Unfortunately so are run-ins with law enforcement where the young offenders who might need treatment for mental health and substance problems, or therapy to overcome C-PTSD are quickly routed into the pipeline of the corrections system – often for life. Instead of being treated like victims, they are treated as a problem, setting up an adversarial relationship of mistrust and anger.
It should not be news that victims need help, not dehumanizing treatment. Nor do they need a shoddy patchwork of government and private programs that do more to keep them dependent and hobbled as they try to navigate a world that can flummox even well-educated adults. That we are failing them is a shame, not to dysfunctional families, or to poor families, but to the rest of us and the politics if I-got-mine and Nimbyism. Homelessness and youth homelessness demand a better, wider, and more comprehensive response than overworked social workers, homeless shelters, and drop-in centers can provide.
What it’s going to take
It’s going to take infrastructure. People don’t like infrastructure unless they get to use it. It’s the driving principle behind NIMBY. However we are dealing not with a crisis in homelessness, we are dealing with an economic crisis, an infrastructure crisis, and a public health crisis. Unless we as a nation turn our resources – and they are bountiful – toward benefiting our own people we face losing ever more young people to the well-documented physical and mental sequelae of poverty. In a world where the Pentagon can ask for 100 B-21 bombers at a cost of $790 million each while a school district cuts its summer lunch program, I have to say that priorities are in need of examination, or children need better lobbyists.
We need to invest in education, not just preparing children for college, but graduating job-ready young people from high school. We need to take vocational education back from rapacious for-profit “colleges” and return it to the licensing boards and vocational educators. We need to intervene with families and help them before they become homeless, while the modern safety net illogically can’t seem to help until someone’s actually hit the ground. Apologists for the system spread their hands and mouth platitudes about people falling through the cracks. That crack must be the size of the Marianas Trench.
We need to rebuild our communities, our schools, our blue-collar jobs, and our identity as a nation. As the middle class dies, so do our American dreams. We are losing sight of compassion, mercy, and the idea that we are all in it together. The politics of division must go, and with it the racism and classism at its roots. We must help youth, care for and heal them, and give them belief in their own future – or face a lost generation.