We aren’t doing right by our most vulnerable youth — the runaways, and the young people who are homeless.
Stacey Violante Cote, director of the Teen Legal Advocacy Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy, heads a work group that studies homeless youth in the state. The group recently released a report, “Opening Doors for Youth,” that said the state’s youth services are geared mostly for young people who are clients of state agencies such as the Department of Children and Families, or they are among the handful of young people who occupy the state’s few slots in shelters.
That leaves out most of the young people who are homeless in Connecticut, who are uniquely skilled at staying under the radar. They often float free of any programs – schools, DCF, and others – that could help them. They may have aged out of the foster care system. They may be couch-surfing, or trading sex for a place to sleep.
But to even identify youths in crisis, you need to know how to ask the right questions, says Cote. And sometimes, youths in crisis don’t need that much help.
“They just need the assistance to get on their feet — some life skills, connection to mental health and they’re going to be fine,” said Cote. “They can transition right in place.”
Helping runaway and homeless youths make a positive transition back into society is especially challenging at a time when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has submitted a two-year, $40 billion budget that includes cuts one lawmaker called “untenable.” Cote says it’s imperative to maintain funding already in place.
There are all kinds of good reasons to get these children – some as young as 12 – into stable housing with services if necessary. Homeless youths tend to rely on welfare. They get arrested and incarcerated more than their stably housed peers. Homeless youth too often grow up to be homeless adults.
From a 2013 study funded in part by Cote’s center and the Partnership for Strong Communities, a policy/advocacy organization based in Hartford, nearly a quarter (23.5 percent) of the 98 youths surveyed had contemplated suicide. Fourteen of the 98 had tried to commit suicide. Youths of color and youths who identify as members of the LGBTQ community were over-represented.
National numbers say roughly 40 percent of homeless youth leave home or are asked to leave because of sexual orientation or gender. National studies say LGBTQ youth make up as much as 40 percent of all youths who are homeless or unstably housed.
Preliminary findings from a Connecticut youth count conducted earlier this year place that number slightly lower. Of the youth unstably housed in Connecticut, about a fifth identified themselves as members of the LGBTQ community. Of the youth staying in shelters or living in places not meant for human habitation, the number was closer to 30 percent.
Final results from the count should be published in May.
By no means are all LGBTQ youth depressed – or homeless. As True Colors Executive Director Robin P. McHaelen says, the biggest indicator of mental health – and housing stability – is a youth’s family. If the family rejects the youth, that young person is left with few options in Connecticut.
The acute problem of youth homelessness will be the subject of discussion, film documentary and youth panel conversation hosted by Connecticut’s Reaching Home Campaign on April 9 at The Lyceum, 227 Lawrence St., Hartford. The public is welcome and should RSVP to bit.ly/TheHomestretch.
On May 7, the Conn. Health I-Team will host ‘Uncovering Our Kids: Towards a Better Understanding of Teen Mental Health” at The Lyceum, 227 Lawrence St., in Hartford. . The event is being held in collaboration with ConnectiCare and Hartford Hospital’s Institute of Living. For information and purchase a ticket, go here. Proceeds go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Southern CT Chapter, and to continuing coverage of adolescent mental health by the Connecticut Health I-Team.