Parents of teenagers probably think they have experienced life with a “disconnected youth.” There’s evidence you have a teenager. You’re paying astronomical car insurance rates and feel like you should just have groceries delivered by the ton, but maybe you rarely see your teen, between time with friends, sports and part-time jobs.
There’s a more sobering definition of a disconnected youth. These are the thousands of youth who are stumbling in the dark. They are not in school nor do they have steady jobs. While a process for counting unaccompanied youths is difficult, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that as many as 50,000 youth may be homeless in any given year. And when we say youths, we are talking about children as young as 14.
How do children end up on our streets? The same factors that lead to adult homelessness cause kid homelessness – because they lack access to a good education they are getting a head start on poverty. They often come from homes troubled by domestic violence, or families with parents who themselves lack much education or employment opportunity, suffer from severe mental illness or have substance use disorders. We know that many children are removed from the family home for neglect and abuse, and placed in foster care. When they turn 18 they “graduate” from foster care, meaning financial support for the foster parent ends and the youths are expected to move on, ready or not.
There are good services out there, and reason to hope they may get more support. President Obama just released his proposed budget for 2013, and it increasesd funds to reach out to our homeless disconnected youth. More importantly it encourages even greater collaboration among social systems who touch youth. The Departments of Labor and Education should integrate job training and education opportunites with social services and affordable housing.
When I was raising my two sons I often reminded myself I could pay now or I could pay later…if I didn’t teach them and supervise them when they were young it would only get harder along the way. If we want to help our homeless youth connect to real opportunities we must take care of them now, or we will surely be paying later. And they will become the parents of the next generation of disconnected youth.