By Olivia Bernstein
More than 4 million youth and young adults experience homelessness annually in this country. It is estimated that at least 700,000 are not part of a family or accompanied by a parent or guardian. Risk factors include family conflict, a youth’s sexual orientation or gender identity, substance use, and school problems.
MHA is among the organizations that recently launched initiatives to address this issue in Massachusetts, where it is said that, on any given day, nearly 500 unaccompanied young people, ages 18 to 24, experience homelessness.
Federal grant money received through our work with the Continuums of Care in Hampden County and the Three County Continuum of Care administered by Community Action of Pioneer Valley (CAPV), which serves Hampshire, Berkshire, and Franklin counties, is funding two MHA projects over a 24-month period that support the needs of homeless youth.
One provides permanent supportive housing for eight beds annually in Springfield, as well as eight in Greenfield, and includes subsidies so participants pay only one-third of their income for rent.
The other, referred to as a Housing Navigation and Rapid Re-housing program, helps youth and young adults navigate services to obtain housing. The program covers rental and related expenses for up to two years for six beds annually.
These projects represent a more comprehensive approach to youth homelessness that provides ongoing rental and individualized case-management support.
In its pioneering report, “More Than Housing, Give Us Homes,” CAPV called youth homelessness a “crisis in our region,” and through $1.96 million in federal funds, it and its partners received a jump start toward ending the crisis. Guiding principles include prioritizing “evidence-based, low-barrier practices, such as housing first, trauma-informed care, and positive youth development.”
As one of CAPV’s partners, MHA couldn’t agree more. This is a population just starting out in life and in need of support, including subsidized housing that is in short supply in the area; services tailored to individualized needs, which may include access to behavioral-health resources; learning life skills such as budgeting; and pursuing employment or educational opportunities.
These youth and young adults, 18 to 24, have experienced more than anyone should have to in their young lives. Some of them have been out on the street or in shelters or exited foster care at 18 with no place to go. Some of them are in unsafe situations and at risk of harm. They may be living with a family member or couch surfing in an unsafe place, and many we serve identify as LGBTQ+. They may not feel accepted by their family or have family relationships that they don’t feel are safe.
MHA is seeing early success in its work with youth involved in both projects. It is, for some, their first time involved with social services, but all are eager to move into the next stage of their lives, which includes more independence and access to housing. Some are continuing a college education, others are seeking employment in their chosen field, and some are in recovery programs.
These young people have shown they are resilient and, like all of us, deserving of a place to call home. We see homelessness all over this country, but it is a huge systemic injustice that anyone should have to live out on the street.
Olivia Bernstein is clinical director of Homeless Services at MHA.