Young adults are new face of homelessness

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View a map below of student homelessness by school district and watch Generation Homeless: Voices from the Street, a video produced for InvestigateWest.

Young adults are the new face of homelessness.

It’s a group driven by two large converging forces — an economy that has been especially brutal on young people, and the large numbers currently growing up in foster care.

Nationwide, some 2 million young people aged 18-24 become homeless every year. In Washington state, good numbers are difficult to come by, but about 1,000 young people a night are estimated homeless in the Seattle area on any given night.

"We’re turning people away in record numbers," said Kristine Cunningham, executive director of Roots in Seattle, one of the pioneering young adult shelters in the country. Roots expects to turn away more than 2,000 people this year, compared with about 200 five years ago.

The legacy of a failing foster-care system and young people stranded by the crack epidemic of the late 1980s, the record demand experienced by these shelters illustrates a new face of homelessness, and comes even as the number of beds for young adults has been expanding.

Homeless families are overwhelmingly headed by young women with young children. Yet the group driving this trend — young adults ages 18-24 — is generally under-counted and under-represented when solutions are envisioned. Relatively few resources are being directed to prevent them from producing new generations of homeless families.

Casi Jackson is part of the problem, and part of the solution. At work at a homeless outreach center in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, she shifts her daughter, Tiana, 7 months, on her hip and juggles a cell phone in her other hand while she fields a call from a scared-sounding mom with no place to sleep tonight. Slender, with long curly hair, and an unflinching manner, Jackson is matter-of-fact on the phone and sounds older than her 22 years. She knows what it’s like to be staring down a night without shelter.

Jackson was homeless at 20. She had borne three children by 21. One died. One is now living with a grandparent. One lives with her. She has another on the way as she struggles to make for them what she never had — a stable home with a family under one roof.

Jackson clicks off the call in the bare cubicle that serves as a makeshift office for Vets Edge, a grass-roots homeless outreach service.

Two large converging forces — an economy that has been especially brutal on young people, and the large numbers currently "aging out" or growing to adulthood in foster care are driving the homeless numbers up.

For some of those young people, getting pregnant is perceived as a way out of homelessness. There’s a perception on the street that if you’re about to give birth, you can get housing, said Cunningham. "We’ve incentivized becoming pregnant."

Children born to homeless mothers, or who experience multiple episodes of housing instability — couch surfing, staying in motels, or shuttling between households when they are young — often mirror that in their own adulthoods.

Jackson’s own trajectory shows how homelessness can pass from generation to generation. She was born in a California jail. Her military father was deployed when his baby daughter was discharged from the jail medical ward.

She spent her childhood knocking between relatives, most often with a grandmother, a foster parent who was also raising many of Jackson’s cousins.

"If I had to characterize my childhood in one word, it would be chaos," she said.

Priced out

Families make up one of the fastest-growing segments of the homeless population. Young people age 18 to 24 make up 26 percent of homeless families.

Yet, of all segments of the homeless population, young adults probably receive the least attention, have the fewest resources applied to help them, and have the least amount of policy advocacy on their behalf, said Mark Putnam, a lead consultant for Building Changes, a nonprofit focused on ending homelessness.

"There’s not a coalition for them in Washington state," he said.

At the national level, it’s barely on the radar of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a powerful advocacy group that provides information the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"Being homeless is like a picture of someone screaming, and no one coming to help," said Tony Torres, 22, a former foster kid who spent the last four years on the street, in and out of shelters and has just now gotten a temporary bed in a transitional home.

There’s a cultural bias that these young people are able-bodied and should be working, Putnam said. "People prejudge they made a choice to be on the street."

For most, it’s not a choice.

Making it on your own at age 18 may have been possible for their parents’ generation, said Rachel Antrobus, director of San-Francisco based Transitional Age Youth Initiative, an agency that works to coordinate services for 18 to 24-year-olds. "But that’s not actually a reality anymore."

Unemployment rates are higher for young adults than the national average, and reached 15 percent in March, its highest rate since 1948.

"The 30-year-olds are taking jobs from 20-year-olds, because the 40-year-olds are taking the 30-year-old’s jobs, said Putnam. "These guys are truly employment victims of the recession."

Curtis, 24, who didn’t want his last name used, wound up staying at The Landing, a young adult shelter in Bellevue, after the place he was renting went into foreclosure. He hasn’t been able to scrape together enough money to find a new place on his wages parking cars for a local hotel. Finding enough money for a deposit is a real stumbling block.

"The whole situation just really sucks."

From foster care to the streets

The economy, however, only compounds an even larger underlying problem: The largest driver of the young adult homeless population is the foster-care system.

"Once you hit 18, you get dumped from the system and forgotten about," said Torres, who lived in multiple foster homes from the age of 12 until he was 18. He suffers from kidney failure and has had to juggle difficult medical treatments with life on the streets.

At age 18, states stop providing money for support of foster children.

The Mockingbird Society, a foster youth advocacy group based in Seattle, lobbied successfully to get federal legislation passed to extend support until age 21. The Fostering Connections to Success Act passed in 2008 provides federal matching funds for extending foster support. But the fight now is to get states to put up their part of the money, said spokeswoman Rose Berg.

Half their peers live at home and two-thirds receive economic support from their parents, according to a national survey done before the recession. For former foster kids, there’s no one to co-sign a lease. No one to let them move back in.

Nationally, a report by Pew Charitable Trusts showed while the number of kids in foster care has been declining, the number of those aging out is on the rise, increasing by 41 percent between 1998 and 2005. About 20,000 young people a year age out of foster care.

This is the legacy of the crack epidemic of the 1980s, said Antrobus. Many of the kids who have been aging out went into the system as a byproduct of that era of rampant drug use by their parents. "We’ve been in a peak for a few years, and we will be for a few more."

Studies, including those done by Pew, also show that one in five of those who age out will be homeless within two years of leaving foster care. Half won’t have a high school degree. Less than 3 percent graduate college. A 2004 study by Casey Family Programs in conjunction with Washington’s Department Social and Health Services showed 13 percent of those leaving foster care in this state became homeless within a year and more than half were unemployed.

By the time they age out of foster care at age 18, 20 percent of young women are already parents. Another 40 percent are pregnant.

InvestigateWest is a nonprofit investigative journalism center based in Seattle. For information on how you can support independent investigative reporting for the common good, go to www.invw.org.

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VIDEO - Generation Homeless - Voices from the Street

Generation Homeless: Voices from the Street from Mike Kane on Vimeo.

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