For homeless children and youth,
streets are a dangerous abode
Queen’s fortunes changed literally from one day to the next, leaving her with no place to lay her head. For Isabella, homelessness unfolded over time, a train wreck in slow motion.
Isabella was 7 when her stepfather started abusing her. By the time she was 12, she had developed an addiction to drugs and alcohol, the balm at hand. At 15, she moved in with her biological father, who helped her get into rehab. But when she quickly relapsed, he threw Isabella out of the house.
“My only choice was to live on the streets, with friends, in hotels, or in vacant apartments,” she recalls. “I made money selling myself, but in order to function, to survive this way, I did more drugs, and my addiction got worse.”
Queen’s story is the polar opposite of Isabella’s. The only daughter of a loving single mother, Queen led a contented life. She nourished a talent for fashion and make-up along with a gift for singing. An excellent student, Queen was just five courses shy of graduating from her community college when her mother fell ill and lost her job. Suddenly, Queen was facing homelessness.
Both Queen and Isabella ultimately found their way to Covenant House. Queen was referred by a guidance counselor the day she stopped by to cancel her classes and drop out of school. Isabella’s father brought her to the shelter’s doors.
Covenant House is a network of youth shelters that spans 31 cities across six countries: the United States, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. There, children and youth find safety, shelter and a way forward.
Across the United States, an astounding 4.2 million children and youth experience at least one period of homelessness each year, according to Chapin Hall of the University of Chicago. That’s a youth population, ages 13 to 25, the size of the city of Los Angeles.
Break that statistic down further, and it’s even more alarming: 1 in 10 young adults ages 18 to 25 and 1 in 30 unaccompanied children ages 13 to 17 experience homelessness over the course of a year, Chapin Hall’s research says. These youth live on the streets, couch surf, and take shelter in unsafe, unstable conditions like abandoned buildings and all-night subways.
While homelessness can strike any young person—like Queen, who had everything going for her—some are more vulnerable than others. Youth who drop out of school or are otherwise impeded from attending classes, those from families that struggle economically, and unmarried or parenting youth are at greater risk of homelessness than their peers.
Young people who identify as LGBTQ are over 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness than their non-LGBTQ classmates and friends. Not only that: they also face, among all youth experiencing homelessness, a greater risk of “high levels of hardship,” including assault, trauma and early death.
At Covenant House, about a third of all the young people who seek our services have had involvement with the foster care or child welfare system in their country, meaning there was a problem of violence, abuse, neglect or crisis in their home of origin. While a healthy foster care placement might help a child come to terms with such hardships, a poor placement or an untimely aging out of the system can leave traumatic experiences unresolved and the youth unprepared for independent adulthood.
In developing countries, such as in Central America and Mexico, child safety nets are thin or nonexistent, leaving children who experience violence or neglect in the home with little recourse.
Once a child or youth flees or is driven from the home, their life on the streets becomes extremely hazardous. They face a huge toll in physical and mental health, and every year thousands of young people experiencing homelessness die on the streets due to illness, assault or suicide.
Young people with nowhere to call home often feel compelled to prioritize daily survival over simmering health issues. They eat when and what they can, sleep poorly and unprotected, and may carry with them the stress and poor health engendered in their households of origin.
Their circumstances may oblige youth facing homelessness to neglect personal hygiene, and they may engage in unhealthy coping behaviors such as using addictive substances like tobacco, drugs or alcohol and engaging in high-risk sex. Isabella found herself in the traumatizing position of exchanging sex for money.
More than a third of the young people who come to Covenant House for sanctuary arrive with a mental health issue or diagnosis. Studies show that depression, anxiety, substance use and post-traumatic stress disorder are among the most common mental health issues of youth facing homelessness.
In 2017, Covenant House partnered with the Loyola University (New Orleans) Modern Slavery Project and the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, and Research of the University of Pennsylvania to study the prevalence and nature of human trafficking among young people experiencing homelessness. The studies concluded that 1 in 5 of these youth had been trafficked for sex or labor.
Young people living on the streets are easy prey for human traffickers. They present a low-risk business proposition and are relatively easy to lure from the streets with promises of love, protection, food and financial security. Because of their vulnerability, children and teens with no place to call home and no one to care for them easily fall into the trap laid by traffickers.
For Queen, Covenant House was more than just a place to stay when she was homeless. “The staff here really cares; they treat you like you are part of a family,” she says. “They provide you nonstop support and tough love when you need a push. They have been here for me through all my setbacks and all my successes.”
Like Queen, who is living independently and blossoming at a job she loves, while planning to pursue a master’s degree in business administration, Isabella has found the support she needed at Covenant House to conquer her addictions. She has been steadily employed full time and is looking forward to starting college.
Featured Image: Formerly homeless youths who live in Covenant House facilities around the U.S. pose for a photo at the Library of Congress in Washington. (CNS/courtesy Covenant House)
To read other stories about homelessness in the U.S. and abroad, go to “They Are Not Alone,”