The following is an opinion piece from State Senator Katherine Clark:
“Unaccompanied homeless youth” is a term too clinical for what it actually describes. Technically, it refers to a homeless person under the age of 22 living without adult supervision. In practical terms, we are talking about our kids, homeless, on the streets, with no adults to care for them or protect them. These young people face daunting challenges related to housing, education, violence, substance abuse and medical care.
According to the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which studies issues of homelessness, these teens are at higher risk for violence, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, disease, and sexual victimization. Some turn to crime, and many struggle with drug and alcohol dependency.
For many reasons, it is difficult to obtain accurate data about the extent of this challenge, but the Appleseed Center reports that the number of unaccompanied homeless youth could be higher than 1.6 million nationally. In Massachusetts, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education estimates that nearly 6,000 high school students are homeless with no guardian. And those numbers are much higher when we consider the thousands of teens who have dropped out of school completely.
Compounding this problem is a legal, regulatory and shelter system that does not adequately meet the needs of these children and young adults.
As a first step to understanding and addressing youth homelessness, the legislature passed a bill last summer to establish the Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Commission. I was recently appointed to this Commission, and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this effort to develop common sense recommendations to better serve these young people.
One of the programs I will be looking to as a model is Rediscovery’s YouthHarbors that began as a pilot program at Malden High School in 2009. YouthHarbors serves homeless Malden High School students and helps find them local housing quickly. It supports the students with academic help, employment assistance, and mental health counseling, and matches them with adults who are committed to the students and act as mentors. Within the first year, 96% of YouthHarbors’ students were stably housed and graduated or were on track to graduate high school.
The Commission will make recommendations to the legislature later this year, and I will work to ensure that these recommendations address the many facets of this challenge, including shelter, schooling, physical health and safety, and mental health services. We can make a difference in the lives of these young people and provide them with opportunities and a brighter future, and that is a great benefit to us all.