Cold and Alone
Wednesday, December 4, 2019
A few weeks ago, I reluctantly turned my furnace on for the first time since March. I was reluctant mostly because I didn’t want to admit that those lovely summer months were coming to a close and we were about to face months of time spent indoors while it poured buckets outside. Then I was struck by the realization that there are those that have no furnace, have no warm bed, have no roof or walls, and that some of those doing without these basics are kids like mine. On any given day Bellingham has an estimated 600 unaccompanied young adults (age 14 to 24) that are homeless based on numbers put out by the Whatcom Coalition to End Homelessness.
According to the Department of Justice, there are more than 1.7 million homeless youth annually in the United States. The Urban Institute estimates that nearly 1 in 5 youth under the age of 18 will run away at least once. Public schools in Washington State reported to the US Department of Education that 40,934 students enrolled in the 2016-17 school year were homeless. How do teens and young adults become homeless?
There is no straightforward answer to this question, which makes addressing it so difficult.
According to Tanya Francis, Vocational Coordinator at Northwest Youth Services, there are many factors that contribute to homelessness: youth impacted by childhood or family trauma and making poor choices as a byproduct of that trauma, a lack of life skills and helpful coping mechanisms, reduced opportunities as comparable to other youth with supportive environments, being kicked out of their homes due to their gender identity or sexual orientation (40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGTBQ+), phasing out of support systems like foster care, and simply a lack of affordable housing for youth’s families or youth on their own. One commonality in all of these factors is isolation.
Homeless youth are more prone to be affected by the negative effects associated with isolation due to the already trying times of growing up and just experiencing exactly whom they are as individuals. There are a multitude of programs at the local, state and federal levels already in place to assist families and youth experiencing homelessness.
In response to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law that guarantees all children and youth the right to an equal education regardless of their living situation, the Bellingham School District has systems in place to connect families and students experiencing homelessness with local agencies such as Northwest Youth Services and Opportunity Council. But many teens and young adults are still falling through the cracks.
The answer could be more inclusivity, in whatever form it may need to take.
Jason Dallmann, who worked with homeless youth in both Bellingham and on the Lummi Reservation for 14 years, cites that the most successful programs he witnessed were those that made youth feel valued for their role in the program. Dallmann noted that programs which brought together staff, teens and volunteers in a small business setting were most effective, not only because of the valuable hands-on learning of job skills; but it was also the sense of belonging, the connections to other people and the feeling of being valued as a person that seemed to have the most impact on these young people.
It is imperative that we as a society are keeping our kids engaged and introduce them to strong connections with their peer group and adults. This can help our kids prevent isolation and build a network of their own to draw upon, especially if those things aren’t accessible at home. Social service programs such as 4-H, Future Farmers of America, and Boy or Girl Scouts give youth a sense of value within the group through community service. Still other programs occupy kids’ time after school like the Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA, and various other after-school programs. All of these programs require funding, scholarships and volunteers to make them effective.
It truly does take a village to raise a child, and we must all take some level of responsibility for the betterment of our next generation.
What part can you play to ensure that young people feel engaged and confident in growing up in our community? One thing Bellinghamsters constantly hear from visitors is that Bellingham is such a welcoming and inclusive place. It’s time to make sure our local youth feel that warm hospitality as well.
Katherine Tolles and Clinton Watson are graduate students in the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.