Concealed within what has been an invisible epidemic of youth homelessness lies an overlooked resource: the caring adults already in young people’s lives who want to help them succeed.
That’s important context for the shocking estimates from the national survey released this month from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago: 1 in 10 young adults (ages 18 to 25) and 1 in 30 youth (ages 13 to 17) endure some form of solo homelessness over a year’s time.
The numbers are so high partly because the survey was designed to expand our understanding of who counts as homeless. A teen doesn’t typically go from living at home one day to living under a bridge the next.
Think about yourself: If, as a young person, you’d arrived home one day to find your front door boarded up, what would you have done? Called your friends, most likely. Or headed over to a neighbor’s house, or to your auntie’s.
In other words, you would have worked your network, which is what young people do when staying at home, for whatever reason, becomes untenable. Half of the young adults and a third of the youth counted as homeless in the Chapin Hall survey were doing what’s called “couch surfing.”
They may not even think of themselves as homeless — after all, they’re “staying with friends.” And, in some ways, that may not be a bad thing, given that “homeless” is a pretty heavy label to lug around. But it can also mean that the young person and his or her host are hard to identify and likely are not accessing helpful resources.
Through the Minnesota Host Home Network, I’m leading a research team conducting confidential interviews with these young people and their informal adult hosts. The big takeaway? The arrangements offer much more than simply the housing that can become the primary focus when we think about addressing homelessness.
“Annie” said she got goose bumps sharing this, but the big thing for her was her hosts “including me in the family, like, I had a family.” On the other side of the equation, one host, who built a dividing wall in the basement so that her daughter’s classmate could have her own room, described the youth as “my bonus daughter.”
Invoking family speaks to a meaningful sense of connection and belonging. Ultimately, what these young people need is what all of us need — people who care about them and want them to flourish. We thrive in relation to others … which is also where things can get complicated.
As “Misty,” a high school student with aspirations of being a dental hygienist, explained about her host, “I feel like we’re close enough to argue with each other as, you know, a biological family.”
In other words, it’s not called couch surfing for nothing. Conflicts arise, and the young people are excruciatingly conscious of imposing. As Annie said, “Sometimes I feel like I’m still invading on their family, even though they welcomed me in.”
The young people don’t want to overstay their welcome, cognizant that — for a family that may already be stretched thin on resources — they represent one more mouth to feed. And among young people facing homelessness, the people they know are often poor. “Kalisha” described going to the food shelf with her host, the father of a friend whom she also sees as a father figure.
As young people leave — or, sometimes, let’s be frank, burn bridges — couch surfing can devolve into arrangements that may be unsafe: The new couch, say, is in a drug house or carries the expectation of “rent” paid in the form of sexual favors.
Left behind is the caring adult who could potentially help the young person make a successful transition to productive adulthood. One way to interpret the Chapin Hall data is that many people are willing to host a young person they know who needs housing. But that doesn’t mean that a traumatized young person and a well-meaning adult can sustain such an arrangement on their own. Outside assistance to mediate an agreement about shared expectations or to provide a rent subsidy can provide crucial support.
Once we start seeing these hidden relationships, we have the opportunity to help stabilize them — and stop a young person’s downward spiral into hard-core homelessness.
Jacqueline White is the founder and director of the Minnesota Host Home Network, which champions caring relationships for facing homelessness with the adults already in their lives.