By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver
(Denver, Colo.) Can you imagine being homeless as a school-aged child?
Had someone told me when I was a child that one day, I would become homeless I no doubt would have cried my eyes out. But perhaps an even worse reality is being homeless while a student in school.
When I was a child, I always did very well in school and had lots of friends. I grew up in a modest neighborhood but in the best part of town, so I mostly grew up with rich kids.
Knowing this, my mother would remind me we weren’t well off like the families of many children at my school. Still, it didn’t stop her from spoiling me rotten. She wanted me to fit in. I had brand-name clothes, a car when I turned 16 … I was a spoiled brat.
No sleepovers for homeless children
Nothing means more to schoolchildren than acceptance from their peers. So, can you imagine being homeless and going to school? One of the best parts about starting school is sleepovers at friends’ houses. Homeless students can’t have sleepovers.
There is help for homeless students in Denver schools. Most money comes from federal funding known as the McKinney-Vento Act. Signed into law by President Reagan in 1995, the legislation is designed to make sure homeless children get an education.
In reality, most homeless students end up dropping out of school, according to homeless organizations. The annual Point in Time survey does not include much data about homeless youth. It is difficult to pinpoint the number of homeless youth in Denver because definitions of homelessness vary by data set. The most recent Point in Time survey dashboard for 2022 tallied 360 homeless youths. Put another way, 16.5 percent of people experiencing homelessness in Denver were age 24 or under.
Number of homeless youth falling
The number of unaccompanied homeless youth has steadily fallen in Colorado since 2017. National progress is also being made toward curbing homelessness among youths. The latest Point in Time count shows the number of unaccompanied youth nationally fell 12 percent between 2020 and 2022.
Unaccompanied youth include more than 30,000 people nationwide under the age of 25. Slightly more than half (57%) were sheltered. In Denver, that statistic is 93 percent
Most (91%) were between the ages of 18 and 24. “Four percent of the unaccompanied youth population reports identifying as transgender, not singularly female or male, or gender questioning, compared with one percent of all individuals experiencing homeless,” according to the survey.
The Denver City Council earlier this month approved a contract with Urban Peak for more than $417,000 to provide housing six housing units to children ages 16 to 24 who are aging out of the foster care system.
Homeless youths often identify as LGBTQ
The state of Colorado Office of Homeless Youth Services conducted a Youth Supplemental Survey which sheds some light on the characteristics of unhoused children. Those include:
A disproportional number of unhoused youth comes from the LGBTQ community. Almost one in three unhoused youths identify as LGBTQ. That number is four in 10 nationally.
Homeless youths sleep in shelters and on the street. “For those enrolled in school, the two most common places for sleep are with family (other than parents/guardians) or in a shelter,” according to the YSS report. “This exemplifies the continued need for schools and shelters to collaborate on providing transportation services and support for education for their shared populations.”
The percentage of youth under 18 enrolled in school was much lower in 2020 than in 2019, according to the supplemental survey report. Only 17 % went to school in 2020 compared to 45 % in 2019. This may be reflective of the pandemic.
Homeless youth come from rich, poor families
So how do students become homeless? Some believe that most students experiencing homelessness get thrown out of their homes for bad behavior. But according to a question-and-answer sheet on the McKinney Vento Act provided by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, “Most runaway youth, especially those who stay away from home a significant length of time, have fled abusive homes for their own survival.” The organization reports that between 20 and 50 percent were sexually abused in their homes, while 40 to 60 percent were physically abused.
The students also reported severe dysfunction in the home. “Thirty percent of callers to the National Runaway Switchboard identified negative family dynamics as the leading reason for leaving home,” according to the group. “For example, over two-thirds of unaccompanied youth surveyed in
a recent study reported that at least one parent abused drugs or alcohol.”
My own break from my parents
My father was a severe alcoholic. My parents married and divorced each other twice, once divorcing when I was 9 and the second time at 14. My parents fought each other to a bloody pulp.
I moved out of my mother’s house at age 17. I moved in with a cousin and paid $150 per month for room and board. From there, I went to college as an independent student and received a generous financial aid package that paid for room and board.
I never thought about it, but I could have become homeless as a youth had I not already been working at a newspaper and had an income. I wanted to get away from my parents that bad.
Denver youth homeless shelter to expand
The main non-profit serving homeless youth in Denver, Urban Peak, recently announced construction of a new “mothership.” The mothership will increase capacity for Urban Peak by 450 percent. In addition to supportive housing and shelter, the mothership will boast a medical clinic, on-site mental health services, a commercial kitchen, education and employment services and life skills development classes.
Youth homelessness is tragic, but in Denver progress is being made toward caring for unhoused children.
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