Part of the tradition, sitting around the Thanksgiving table, involves acknowledging the unmet needs of those less fortunate. Yet, in the case of youth facing homelessness, do we even understand what those needs are? Or even who these young people are?
The first thing to understand is that young people who are on their own and grappling with homelessness are everywhere. As a recent research brief released by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago makes clear, the rate of unaccompanied youth and young adult homelessness is consistent across rural and urban America.
But the experience of homelessness is different in sparsely populated areas. Jobs can be fewer, poverty rates higher and services like youth drop-in centers and housing programs sparse. And getting anywhere is a challenge if you don't have a car and there's no public transportation nearby.
That makes youth in rural areas especially dependent on informal networks. Some 40 percent are crashing with others — twice as many as their urban counterparts. In some cases, those networks are unhealthy, perhaps made up of people caught up in the opioid epidemic, which is disproportionately devastating rural areas.
But in other cases, young people can glean the kind of tangible and intangible support that builds the rich relationship infrastructure that is the hallmark of rural survival — and, really, thriving for anyone.
In interviews with youth facing homelessness across Minnesota as well as with adults who were informally hosting youth they knew, the Minnesota Host Home Network discovered hosting arrangements that offered far more than simply a roof.
One 19-year-old, "Winston," who was struggling with chemical dependency, was able to move out from under the bridge where he was sleeping when he worked out a rental arrangement with his cousin's grandmother, who maintained a sober household. By kicking in gas money so she could drive him to his job at Walmart, he was also able to solve his rural transportation challenge.
For other youths, the support can go even deeper. "Monica," a small-town high school student staying with a classmate's father, describes her relationship with her host as the kind "I've always wanted with my parents but I still don't have with them." The interaction she describes — "he gives really good advice," "asks me how school is going" and "constantly talks about how he wants me to go to college" — represent the kind of caring support we want every young person to have, and especially those facing housing instability.
And yet we can't afford to take these informal networks for granted. We need to invest in them. As "Julia," an executive assistant who is known on her reservation for taking in young people who don't have a place to stay, confided, "When you take in children like that, you don't get any assistance. … I've been down to $2.50 in my account."
So, wherever you're eating your Thanksgiving dinner, whether in greater Minnesota or in the Twin Cities, know that a young person trying to cope with unstable housing is not far away. You may even know a teen who has a precarious home life.
And while they most certainly would appreciate a heaping plate of turkey with all the trimmings, and maybe even, if they have room, a second slice of that scrumptious pumpkin pie, remember that what Thanksgiving is really about is not what you eat, but that you're sitting at a table among others, eating together. Sure, sometimes you wish someone else would stop talking already, but, hey, you're not eating alone. That sense of togetherness and belonging represents the truer unmet need.
As one small-town Minnesota youth who has grappled with homelessness confided, "There were times I would rather have had someone care about me than have a place to sleep."
Jacqueline White, of Minneapolis, is founder and director of the Minnesota Host Home Network, which champions the transformational power of ongoing caring adult relationships with youth facing homelessness.