Poverty Greatest Contributor to Youth Homelessness, Report Finds

Photo: Alena Kuzub

Finding a direct link between youth homelessness and poverty was the conclusion of a study conducted by Paula Braitstein for JAMA Pediatrics.

Braitstein is an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. She analyzed the self-reported reasons youth had for living on the streets in developed and developing countries.

While most housing advocates could argue that it is not too surprising that poverty contributes greatly to homelessness, especially for youth, Braitstein said the data now supports this theory and highlights its effect in places of great wealth such as the United States.

“This is the first study to systematically evaluate and calculate pooled estimates of reasons for child and youth street-involvement,” Braitstein said in an email. “It was surprising how important poverty was as a driver of children and youth to the streets in high and very [high] income settings, including the United States and Canada.”

Braitstein found that almost half of homeless youth who seek shelter cited poverty as the factor that drove them to the streets.

Sam Greenberg, co-founder of the Y2Y Harvard Square youth shelter in Cambridge, said that poverty, among other factors, is why young people end up at his facility.

“It’s definitely something we see in our experience with youth and young adults who are homeless for a variety of reasons, but certainly, poverty is a consistent driver,” he said. “We’ve seen that situations of poverty and oppressive systems lead to poverty in general.”

Lack of affordable housing and jobs for young people are the major concerns Greenberg hears from his clients.

Braitstein’s report also found that youth in the United States, in particular, cite exposure to child abuse and family dysfunction as other reasons why they are homeless. Reasons related to gender and sexuality were also greater in the United States than anywhere else in the world.

“A lot of these kids are coming from difficult situations,” said Mark McLaughlin, street outreach coordinator at Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a Boston agency that serves runaways and homeless and high-risk youth. “There’s just a lot of issues surrounding poverty and lack of resources.”

McLaughlin said the majority of his clients come to downtown Boston from underserved communities such as Roxbury, Dorchester, Brockton and New Bedford, where access to health care, substance abuse and homeless services are lacking.

He said stigmas tied to poverty are another barrier that may prevent youth from seeking employment or accessing services, especially those who come from foster homes.

“A lot of times we see kids age out of the system,” McLaughlin said. “It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot going on in terms of transitioning them into adulthood.

“I think the kids are stigmatized quite a bit,” he continued, “sometimes they don’t want to access health care because they believe they will be stigmatized and will be seen as lazy since, to many, they look like able-bodied individuals.”

“The key message here is that children and youth very often have very good reasons to turn to the streets to survive,” Braitstein said. “We need social protection systems in place that provide a safe alternative for children and youth living in extreme poverty.”

Jordan Frias

Jordan Frias is an editorial assistant at Boston Herald and a contributor of Spare Change News. He is vice president of the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism.

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