Homeless Youth

Homeless and Runaway Youth (2010)

Notes by Sally Hollemon

President Rose Lewis introduced the Unit topic by saying that several local Leagues in Oregon have projects to assist homeless youth, and she hopes LWVMPC (or perhaps an interest group) will find a project on which to work.

Jean Lasater is the Homeless & Runaway Youth Coordinator with the Oregon Commission on Children & Families (OCCF). She said that LWVOR helped pass House Bill 2202 in the legislature to require reports to the legislature and leading to the authorization of $1 million to the Children & Families Commission for pilot projects. Because this effort was intended to be the beginning of state-wide resources for runaway and homeless youth, the projects have been called roll-out sites. They are in many cases fledgling resources in rural communities which would otherwise not be able to meet the needs of these youth. The funds have been used to set up eight roll-out projects (out of twenty grants requested by Oregon counties) with the hope that future legislatures will continue to fund them as well as roll-out projects in other counties that want them.

Services that may be included in the eight roll-out projects are outreach to homeless youth, drop-in centers (such as HOME Youth and Resource Center in Salem), short-term shelter (HOST), group shelter (HOST), long-term shelter for youth 16-21 (primarily federally funded), and follow-up evaluation. (A federal grant has been used to provide training and evaluation methodologies for these projects.)

Each county develops its program to meet its community’s needs, including prevention of homelessness and efforts to keep runaways in their own communities because, if a youngster goes to an urban area, he or she may become a chronically homeless adult; 33-55% of chronically homeless adults report being abandoned, having run away, or being homeless as adolescents. Chronically homeless adults end up needing extensive services and supports and often take up the bulk of the funding available to help the homeless over time. Keeping young people supported and safe in their own communities goes a long way in preventing future homelessness.

The average age of all homeless people is 9 because of all the children who are homeless with their families. The average age of unaccompanied (without a parent) homeless youth is 15. The majority of teenagers run away because their home life is tense, possibly dysfunctional due to neglect or abuse or drug use, and running away seems to them like a solution to an unmanageable problem, so life on the street seems like an improvement. The parent may be a single mother who may be struggling with low or unemployment, may have mental-health or substance-abuse issues, and have minimal parenting skills. She may have a succession of live-in boyfriends, which can create other problems. She is not supported in parenting and overwhelmed by life’s challenges, unable to provide quality parenting.

Homeless youth are typically split evenly between male and female. The girls are more likely to seek out help, which makes them vulnerable to older males and subject to sexual abuse, trading sex for food or shelter, and even prostitution. The boys are likely to stay with a variety of friends on a temporary basis. So long as they have a roof over their heads, even if it is the roof of a tent, teens tend not to think of themselves as “homeless.” It is both critical and challenging to find appropriate shelter or housing for homeless youth who have been living on the streets or in homeless camps. The longer they are immersed in the street culture, the more difficult it often becomes to convince them to go into the structured environment of a shelter or Job Corps.

Human trafficking is on the rise in Oregon. Portland has a booming sex industry, the largest per capita in the nation. Most of the victims are women; over 50 percent of the victims are children. Again, young runaway girls are particularly susceptible and defenseless to older males offering love, money or an apartment. It is a very secretive crime, but the staff at HOME who work with runaway and homeless youth have become familiar with young girls caught up in it. Staff from the Women’s Crisis Center have received training on Human Trafficking and often accompany HOME’s staff on outreach to educate and support young girls.

Peggy Kahan is the founder and director of HOME Youth & Resource Center, which opened in 1994. HOME, located at the edge of downtown, is a day shelter open Monday through Friday from noon to 7 p.m. for youngsters age 11 through 17 (18 if still in school). HOME offers lunch, snacks, dinner; showers; clothing; toiletries; laundry; phone; and caring adults. In addition, HOME provides connections to school and other services. Peggy said that not all the youngsters who come to HOME are homeless. At home there may not be food because, even if employed, the parent may use the available money for tobacco or drugs.

HOME received a Children & Families grant to hire outreach workers and case managers. There are two outreach workers, one of whom speaks Spanish. They go to the bus terminal, mall, schools–the places where kids hang out. The outreach workers contact runaways (or other kids who know who the runaways are); they carry backpacks and offer water, snacks, band-aids, etc., as a way to let the young people know they are there to help.

The case managers pick up police reports of runaways and then call the parents to offer help. If the youngster has returned home in the meantime, the parent believes the problem is solved and will refuse help. After several episodes of running away, however, some parents will accept help. HOME offers parenting classes (although they are called “parent support”) and also offers mediation to help parents and children who are willing to participate. As described earlier, parents are exhausted by their own lives, and it’s hard to get them to invest the time and effort needed to change their lives so that their teenager will want to come home.

It can take a long time to get a young person to trust an adult, a program, and be willing to do the work necessary, to follow the rules, to be motivated enough to be successful at acquiring the skills needed for a successful adulthood. Programs are structured, however, so that kids who leave can come back and try again. The community needs to adjust its expectations of what is success for the kids. They will probably never go to college, but they may have a job and a child; they are satisfied with their progress.

The community needs to provide support for the services necessary for intervention with kids and their parents.

Other Comments

During this recession and the 2009 legislative session, the Oregon Commission on Children & Families has had its funding reduced by an average of 22%, including the runaway and homeless youth initiative. These young people are not bad, they’re sad and vulnerable. They and their families need help in becoming healthy and skilled members of our society.

What can the League do?

Jean said that, since League members helped get the legislation passed that provided the $1 million in funding for the roll-out projects, she hopes that League members will let our legislators know that funding needs to be continued and increased; some states put much more money into helping youngsters grow up to be healthy adults.

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