Homelessness is a public health issue

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One of YouthLink’s interns, Mai, shares her thoughts on viewing homelessness as a public health issue.

When we talk about public health, we’re talking about health issues in our communities, figuring out why those health issues exist, breaking beyond the surface barriers to understand the issues on a deeper level, and finding solutions to improve the public health, and to promote and provide assistance to solve society’s health issues.

Homelessness can affect anyone, anywhere. And it goes beyond simply needing a home. Being homeless, especially for youth, can affect the rest of their lives. Finding a place to stay and food are the main focuses of homeless youth, who are not able to think about school and homework. They also do not have time to think about their health—be it physical, mental, or emotional. They are not thinking about dreams and goals for the future.

Instead, they are worried about finding a place to stay at night, finding food to eat, fighting to stay alive for tomorrow—and simply wanting to belong.
Health and socioeconomic disparities contribute to the rate of homelessness in youth, especially youth of color—whether the result of a parent losing a job and—thus—their home due to financial reasons, an unsupportive family, an abusive environment, or a lack of access to health, educational, and employment resources.

Understanding that homelessness can interrupt a youth’s development and transition into adulthood is crucial to helping to reduce this public health issue. For the most part, some common reasons why youth are homeless have been identified: it can be the result of trauma (caused by sexual, emotional, or physical abuse), parental neglect, substance abuse, coming out as LGBTQ, money troubles, or aging out of foster care, among others.

But the solution is more complex than just wanting to help youth find a home. Resources and services to provide mental and emotional healthcare are essential in a homeless youth’s journey back to hopefulness.

The National Conference of State Legislators reports some of the consequences of homeless/runaway youth:

  • Increased likelihood of high-risk behaviors (unprotected sex, multiple sexual partners, drug use)
  • Greater risk of severe anxiety and depression, suicide, poor health and nutrition, and low self-esteem
  • With low self-esteem, there is a low self-efficacy. It is the belief of one’s own ability to do something to change his/her behavior. So, if a youth’s self-efficacy—her belief in her ability to change and her desire for a better future— is low, the cycle of homelessness will continue.
  • Difficulty attending school due to lack of required enrollment records (immunization forms, medical records, and proof residence) as well as a lack of access to transportation to and from school (Rochelle Finzel, NCSL.org, 2013).

Homelessness, as a part of the public health, affects us as a society as much as those experiencing homelessness. But it’s something we constantly forget because it’s not a physical reality for us. Do you know how much states spend each year imprisoning nonviolent youth? According to the Justice Policy Institute, states spend approximately $5.7 billion dollars on youth who have been imprisoned for nonviolent offenses, which could be managed safely in the community or through an organization like YouthLink (justicepolicy.org, 2013).

That doesn’t have to be the case. Adolescents are the future, and we must support youth, and the organizations that help them, and discuss the problem of homelessness to improve the lives of homeless youth so they are able to learn the skills they need to exit homelessness and reconnect to a positive future.

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