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The Impact of Homelessness on Teens' Development

The teen years are awkward and precarious, to say the least. Youth are stuck in that icky gray phase between childhood and adulthood with tension on both ends. For youth living in stable and secure homes, this time in their lives will eventually be looked back on with a light sense of nostalgia. They have their family, friends, and community present to guide them when they need it and to pick them back up when they decide to ignore others’ advice as teenagers tend to do.

However, for a portion of youth, those experiencing homelessness, their teen years will lack this nostalgia. In its place will be traumatic memories that will deeply impact these youth as they step into adulthood. This impact can be both physical, mental, and social.

Physically teens experiencing homelessness are at higher risks of violence, assault, and illness. Because these youth do not have homes or trustworthy adults in their lives to protect them, they are often left at the mercy of strangers and their environment. It is not uncommon for these youth to experience physical assault, sexual violence, or even turn to sex work (or other illegal activities) to survive. Sometimes this violence may even come from other homeless youth.

“More than ten percent of youth have forced entry into a residence. As many as half of homeless youth have participated in gang activity. However, ‘while homeless youth often engage in criminal activity, research shows they are more likely to be the victims of crimes rather than the perpetrators.’ Trauma and rape rates among unaccompanied youth are two to three times higher than those of the general youth population.” -National Network for Youth, 2008 Issue Brief

Because youth homelessness often includes negative interactions with the law, these teens fear the police. After being the victim of a crime, going to the authorities is not an option. Not only do these youth fear police but they know they could be charged with minor offences or forced to return home if they’re a runaway. Also, reporting a crime while living in a temporary place is difficult. What applies in one state may not apply in another, and with a perpetrator who is also homeless finding them is challenging to say the least.

In terms of mental development, these teenagers experienced increased rates of depression and anxiety. Actually, a 2018 study showed that 89% of homeless youth aged 16–19 years old met the criteria for one or more mental disorders. In comparison, only 30% of the national population within that same age range met this criteria.3 Cases of severe depression, conduct disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder are common among runaway youth.

As a way of coping with their mental health and the trauma that comes with homelessness, many youths will turn to substance abuse. A 2008 issue report from the National Network of Youth reported that between 30% and 40% of unaccompanied youth report problems with alcohol in their lifetime. 40 to 50% report drug problems. 1 How do we stop this? How can we be proactive in our approach to help lower these numbers? With your help, Village of Becoming can increase the treatment rate by providing resources and creating programs aimed to council and lead our young adults into the innovative leaders of tomorrow.

“Unfortunately while the number of unaccompanied youth who turn to drugs and alcohol is high, the number of unaccompanied youth who find treatment is low (less than 15 percent). Drug and alcohol abuse among unaccompanied youth is dangerous, as it causes impairment, which leads to poor decision making.”

-National Network for Youth, 2008 Issue Brief

Socially homeless teens suffer as well because they have grown accustomed to living in unstable environments. When placed in a space with more stability, structure, and organization, the youth may not know how to respond. They’ve lived so much of their life “in survival mode” that anything else feels dangerous, intimidating, or just confusing.

In their 2008 issue report, the National Network for Youth said, “This [normalization of education and socialization processes] affects a young person’s future ability to live independently, and also results in the development of learning problems and interpersonal communication problems, leading youth to have future troubles integrating into society.”

As a reaction to this fear, youth may struggle in the workplace. Showing up on time, clocking in their hours, or communicating with managers (authority figures) may prove to be too difficult. Similarly with school, because these teens had to prioritize basic survival, they may view education and academics as an afterthought. While to others education can seem like the way to a better life. For teens who have experienced or are currently experiencing homelessness it’s another opportunity for failure or a distraction from their real priorities e.g. housing, food, water, hygiene, happiness, mental health.

For these reasons, Village Of Becoming is dedicated to educating and providing resources to homeless youth from underprivileged homes, poverty-stricken environments, aged out of Foster Care. Join us on our mission to create a world where every young adult has the support they need to succeed.


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