BOSTON, Mass.—On 16 June 2012, the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities held a hearing for House Bill 135, “An Act Providing Housing and Support Services to Unaccompanied Homeless Youth.” Co-sponsored by state senators James O’Day and Katherine Clark, the bill seeks to improve on the resources available to homeless youth in Massachusetts.
Lead by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Special Commission on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth (SCUHY), HB 135 has generated buzz among nonprofits that serve people who lack housing. For example, the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless provided substantial expert testimony on the subject of youth homelessness—alongside handing out stickers, reports, and information outside the meeting room.
In April, SCUHY released its inaugural report outlining the need for additional resources and data on this unique and understudied population. The report emphasized that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth, in particular, tend to have difficult experiences with adults in their homes, their schools, and in social service agencies.
There are approximately 6000 unaccompanied homeless youth in the commonwealth, a problem made much larger by distrust of adults, physical and emotional trauma, and sheer lack of resources. According to advocates, this is what makes HB 135 so necessary.
SCUHY defines an unaccompanied homeless youth as anyone 22-years-old or younger who is not in the physical or legal custody of a parent or guardian and does not have a regular nighttime residence—which means a residence other than a shelter, transitional housing, “couch-surfing,” or other non-permanent housing.
“The [Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities] understands this a unique issue,” said Senator Katherine Clark, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, “[Many of these youth] really don’t have relatives or family they can live with.”
In her testimony, Senator Clark told the committee, ”Every day they confront daunting challenges no one, never mind children, should face. And they are not getting the services—stable housing, education and health care—they need and deserve.”
Testimony on the bill came from nonprofits like Youth on Fire, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, EqualityNow and Boston Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services (Boston GLASS), as well as homeless youth providing their own personal stories. Many LGBTQ advocacy groups are strong supporters of HB 135 because homelessness disproportionately affects LGBTQ youth.
“At the end of the day, young folks are homeless because home doesn’t exist, home isn’t safe, or home isn’t supportive . . . they are often scared, exhausted, overwhelmed and intensely vulnerable . . . they are survivors,” explained Youth on Fire’s program director, Ayala Livny. A program of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, Youth on Fire operates a drop-in center for homeless youth ages 14 to 24. According to its website, the organization served over 2500 youth and young adults since it was founded in the spring of 2000.
“A lot of the best practices are by agencies. We need more of these agencies,” Senator O’Day said in his testimony, “Some additional funding brings the youth to the table. . . . We really need their input.”
In their testimonies, many of the youth expressed more day-to-day concerns like the need to do laundry and bathe so they can secure employment. Others said they just want a place to feel safe from the dangers of living on the street. And they said their homelessness often snowballs.
According to SCUHY’s report, substance abuse rates are significantly higher among homeless youth than their housed counterparts. Around 21% of homeless students reported using heroine, while 67% used alcohol in the previous 30 days and 57% smoked marijuana in the previous month.
While experts testified about the need for resources to combat substance abuse, the youth testimonies shied away from the subject. Instead, they focused on their experiences of how they became homeless and how important youth-oriented programs have been in their attempts to get back on track.
Alec, a 22 year-old homeless youth, testified that he has three jobs and still cannot afford housing. Adult shelters aren’t a good option, he said, because “healthy young men are likely to be seen as prey to older men. Myself and many other young people fear being assaulted and harassed, and theft is a greater risk [in a shelter] than when sleeping on the street.”
Alec, who dropped out of college for financial reasons, went on to outline three ways to improve the condition of unaccompanied homeless youth: “First we need safe spaces. . . . Second, we need more specific shelters for youth . . . and lastly, we need supportive and affordable housing.”
Charles, 19, discussed his history of sexual assault from family members. On his fifteenth birthday, he was kicked out of his home for “identifying as a gay male, proudly.” However, his troubles didn’t end there. “Last year, August 13, I was gang-raped by seven men due to me looking at a car behind my old apartment.” Charles continued, “I look at myself as a survivor.”
While heartbreaking, Charles’s story was also one of resilience. He hopes to enroll in college in the spring and said he wants to become a social worker.
“The drop-in centers need to be supportive” of LGBTQ youth, explained Holly Brauner, Housing Pathways program director for the North Shore Community Action Programs, “If your mom just kicked you out for liking girls more than boys, you wouldn’t trust adults.”
According to Brauner, many of the homeless adults she serves were once unaccompanied homeless youth. “It’s a cycle,” she said candidly while standing beside nearly a dozen Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless volunteers and staff, “and we stand in solidarity.”