Short-Term Homelessness Among Teens

Recently, a 15-year old boy ran away from his home in Los Angeles. He had $50 to his name and enough money to take the bus to San Francisco. However, he likely didn’t have much food, clothes, or resources. It’s unclear why he left home and why he chose San Francisco as a place to go. Sadly, his parents haven’t heard from their son and, after two months, they still do not know where he is.


It’s possible that he went to San Francisco because he knew someone or because there was something about the city that drew him. However, it’s also possible that he left without a real plan, which creates the risk of homelessness, danger to drugs, and crime in order to make money to live. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment, there were 407,966 individuals in shelters, transitional housing programs, or on the streets.


Among all sheltered people over the course of one year (October 2009 through September 2010), 21.8% were under the age of 18 years old. The highest age bracket to be homeless is between 31 to 50 years old. Furthermore, of those sheltered during this year, 62% were male and 38% were female. Another significant statistic to keep in mind is that about 30% of those who are homeless have mental health conditions. And along these lines, about 50% have a substance abuse disorder in addition to having a mental illness.


It’s clear that living on the streets is not easy, whether you’re a teen or not. There’s no telling what is going to happen this 16-year old, despite the fact that he has parents who care for him. To his benefit, it’s also unclear why he left and the reasons prompting him to stay away from home. For instance, the boy may have been experiencing a form of abuse (sexual, emotional, or physical) by a family member and needed to find a way to escape.


In the year 2000, there were close to 2 million reports of child abuse to protective service agencies, meaning that over 2.7 million children were reported as being abused. Of these cases, 879,000 confirmed the presence of some form of abuse. This translates to an approximate annual rate of 12.2 children per 1,000 under the age of 18 who experience abuse.


Sadly, research points to the connection between childhood abuse and the presence of an addiction in adolescence and adulthood. Additional research shows that over 80% of those teens who are homeless will experience some form of drug or alcohol use. Because of frequent emotional challenges, particularly if a mental illness is present, drugs become an attractive choice as a way to self-medicate and ease the painful stress of life’s instability. Research has shown that the use of drugs and alcohol increases among teens whose living situations become more and more stressful and unstable. The National Network for Youth reports that 30% to 40% of un-parented teens will have alcohol problems in their lifetime, while 40% to 50% of un-parented teens will have problems with other drugs. Homeless youth are more likely to use marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine.


Certainly, there is a strong relationship between homelessness and mental illness. Research indicates that over 60% of those who are chronically homeless have experienced a lifetime of mental health problems. The National Coalition for the Homeless indicates that homeless adolescents suffer from extreme forms of anxiety and depression, along with low self-esteem. In fact, they found that the rates of major depression, conduct disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder to be three times higher in homeless teens than other adolescents. Furthermore, homeless teens are prone to suicide attempts and self-harming behavior, such as cutting their wrists, burning the skin, and self-tattooing. According to the National Network for Youth, suicide is the leading cause of death among homeless adolescents. While for the general adolescent population, suicide is the third leading cause of death.


Although homelessness is not short-term for all teens, even a brief period of time living on the streets can significantly, negatively affect a teen’s psychological health.