Stacey Violante Cote, Directer, Teen Advocacy Project, Center for Children’s Advocacy, Hartford, CT
As a lawyer providing legal representation to homeless children and youth, I’ve seen the damage that “moving around” can do to young people’s safety, education, and physical and mental health. I’m thinking of James, who from ages 15-18 moved from couch to couch, even sleeping on the roof of a local hospital occasionally because he didn’t know of any other place to sleep. I’m thinking of Sonia who stayed in six different homes in a six month period because she didn’t have a stable place to sleep.
And what about when James and Sonia can’t find a place to stay at night? What are they doing to put a roof over their heads? In one study of 98 homeless youth in Connecticut we learned that almost 20% had either traded sex for a place to stay, money, or drugs and alcohol. We also know that a quarter of these youth reported considering suicide over the last year. And the same population of youth experienced a high number of traumatic experiences.
Not only are they in danger, they aren’t attending school. Sonia found it was nearly impossible to go to school when she had to pack up her belongings so frequently. Through Connecticut’s first statewide count of homeless and unstably youth, we learned that only 35.5% were attending school regularly. The biggest needs identified by these youth were education, employment, food, and a long-term place to live. These are basic, required ingredients for children and youth to grow up into healthy adults.
When we force kids to remain in unsafe and unstable housing just so that they can put a roof over their heads, we are keeping them invisible and cutting off their connection to critical supports and services.
The current HUD definition of homelessness excludes James and Sonia. It forces them to remain hidden. It forces them into unsafe situations. This cannot continue. It’s time for children and youth to get in the queue. The Homeless Children and Youth Act would allow communities to use HUD homeless assistance funds to serve them- if these communities choose to do so. This doesn’t mean children and youth would use up all the funding. It means they would be in the queue, finally.
*Stacey Violante Cote, JD, MSW, is a lawyer at the Center for Children’s Advocacy where she provides holistic legal representation and policy advocacy on behalf of low-income teenagers in Connecticut.