One of the major – and ongoing – problems in our city is homelessness.
We see homeless camps everywhere – we see them in the parks, (particularly Veterans Park, but also other downtown area parks such as Victory and Bronstein. I’ve even seen a couple of homeless individuals setting up camp at Lafayette Park, next to CMC here on the West Side), we see homeless camps along the river, in the woods near residential areas, and in the business district along Elm Street (mostly at night and in the early morning). I was actually at a drive-up ATM of my bank and saw a homeless person sleeping on the corner of the building, seemingly sheltering themself from the wind. Seeing the homeless is part of urban life – it shouldn’t be and there are some who are trying to help – but unfortunately, homelessness is currently a reality, especially in urban areas.
Waypoint, located in Manchester, provides services for young people experiencing homelessness. Some services that Waypoint offers are street outreach, a runaway and homeless youth program, transitional living, a transitional living parenting program, youth resource centers, and an emergency shelter in Manchester. (Contact Waypoint for specifics).
I had the privilege of speaking with Erin George-Kelly, the Director of Homeless Youth and Young Adult Services at Waypoint for this article. Erin has over 20 years experience working with adolescents and families and has spent the last 14 years working specifically with homeless youth so is an excellent resource and very knowledgeable on the subject of homeless youth in our city. Much of the information in this article is from that discussion.
The “Invisible Homeless”
When we talk about the homeless, we often think about those who set up camp outside in areas such as those mentioned earlier in this article. Or we think of the panhandlers walking along the medians of many intersections in our city. What we don’t think about is what I am calling the “invisible homeless;” those who are homeless, but for the most part live out their lives without many knowing that they are even homeless – some in the most vulnerable situations. These individuals are the homeless youth in our city. Homeless youth often attend school, hold jobs, and go about their lives without people knowing that they are homeless.
Numbers collected by Erin and her team indicate that there are approximately 675 young people, ages 13-18 experiencing some sort of unaccompanied homelessness in our city. Some may think that 675 is not a large number, but let’s think about it. That is 675 kids that are alone every night in Manchester. To put this into perspective, my wife and I are parents to two children,18 and 13. Our 18-year-old is working through his senior year of high school thinking about what he wants to do after and enjoys playing online games with his friends as well as hanging with family and friends in person. A big decision our 13-year-old makes is what quest he and his friend are going to complete in their game. Instead of these things, both could be thinking about where they are going to eat and sleep tonight. Other things they could be thinking about is how they will protect themselves against the elements and those who can easily harm them when they are outside. Even if inside, would it matter if they are harmed when they have been forgotten? The number 675 has much more meaning when we change our perspective.
That number increases to 1,500 when we look at unaccompanied homeless young people up to age 25, according to numbers collected by Erin and her team. So young people who usually are doing things like preparing for careers, serving in the military, and voting are instead living on the streets of Manchester
A study done by Voices of Youth Count shows that 1-in-30 youth ages 13-18 and 1-in-10 young people ages 18-25 experience some form of unaccompanied homelessness over the course of a year. Youth homelessness is mostly an unseen issue that needs more attention and solutions in order for it to end. As my nana used to always say, “out of sight, out of mind,” except that we need to draw more attention to this issue and work to solve it.
Why youth become homeless
There are many reasons for youth homlessness, but while researching, Erin and her team have found some common trends for the youth in Manchester.
One common trend is generational poverty and housing instability. It is sometimes tough for families to “stay afloat” and “make ends meet” in order to provide for their kids, so the young person leaves or is otherwise forced to go it alone.
A second common trend is complex trauma that the young person has experienced. This of course includes abuse or neglect against the young person, but it also includes family instability, which refers to changes in parents’ residential and romantic partnerships, such as marriage, divorce, and romantic partners moving in or out of the home
Finally, a common trend is when the young person identifies as LGBTQ+. In many instances, the young person is either shunned by their family or they choose to leave to find an environment where they feel more comfortable and/or are free to be themselves. Unfortunately, many of these young people only find the streets.
What youth do once they become homeless…how do they learn?
Youth who are homeless are often unseen and because of this are often overlooked or forgotten. So what do youth do when they become homeless? Experience and research done by Erin and her team shows that homeless youth are very transient. They may camp out on the streets for a couple of days then spend the next few days “couch surfing.” They may then spend a night or two at the emergency youth shelter. Youth do not tend to gather as a community or create a “tent city.” Although homeless youth are often alone, there can still be a sense of fitting in with their peers for some, which sometimes keeps them from being sheltered.
An important thing to note is that homeless youth often participate in society by holding jobs or attending school. (This is one reason why homeless youth are mostly unseen. After all, seeing a teenager carrying a backpack is not at all uncommon). Being homeless while attending school can undoubtedly negatively affect learning. Instead of sitting in class and learning, they are sitting in class wondering where they will sleep – or even eat – that night.
Why do homeless youth not seek help?
Erin and I discussed the resources available to homeless youth as well as the reasons why they may not seek out assistance, especially from government agencies.
The main reason is that homeless youth do not want to end up in the system. They do not want child protective services involved in their lives, mostly out of fear that they will end up in foster care, which they often see as worse than being on the streets. There is a good amount of unknown when it comes to foster care, and to many homeless youth, the known, (homelessness), is better than the unknown, (foster care).
Sometimes homeless youth still have loyalty to their family, even if they were abused or neglected, and getting child protective services involved may tear the family unit apart or cause severed relationships more so than what is already being experienced.
Some youth actually remain at or return home, even in an abusive or neglectful situation, because they know that their parents have to provide food and shelter for them and they choose home over becoming or remaining homeless.
Something that Erin told me about that I did not know, and that I’m sure many people don’t know, is that Waypoint has a worker dedicated to helping youth navigate through certain safe processes without having to involve child protective services. They can help with things such as family mediation or connection with extended family and for those families that may be experiencing housing or food issues, they can help them apply for needed aid. These things can be done without child protective services intervention as long as the youth is safe and there is no known abuse or neglect happening.
How can we help or get involved?
First and foremost, we can help by creating greater awareness of youth homelessness. Tell your friends and neighbors and advocate. This issue needs to become more visible!
Another way to help is through fundraising or assisting Waypoint with events. The annual SleepOut, which raises awareness and funds for the programs and services that help homeless youth, is happening on March 24, 2023. The 2023 event will be both virtual and in-person.
If you are looking for more opportunities to get involved or contribute, contact Erin George-Kelly.
Ending youth homelessness is vital, so please get involved.
The end game is to prevent more youth from becoming homeless, because being a youth in our city should not include being homeless.