Increasing teen homelessness is a long time passionate concern for me (see Homelessness: An American Disgrace, owing to my work with homeless adolescents in Seattle. According to Covenant House, more than 2 million (40% of the US homeless population) American kids will experience homelessness in any given year. Homeless teens are an extremely high-risk group: in addition to a high risk of alcoholism and drug abuse, girls especially face the risk of prostitution, pregnancy and victimization by human traffickers.
This isn’t a new problem. Along with other social justice advocates, I have been fighting for the rights of disenfranchised young people for more than thirty years. The crisis of homeless kids began with the Reagan-Thatcher social service cuts of the 1980s and dramatically worsened with the 2008 downtown. Ironically many homeless youth are former wards of the state who have “aged out” of the foster care system. After dealing with the callous indifferent of elected official for more than thirty years, I no longer believe the problem can be solved under monopoly capitalism.
Why Kids Become Homeless
Conservatives claim that teenagers become homeless by choice. This is ludicrous. Adolescents become homeless because all other options are closed to them.
Nearly half of US teens on the streets have left home to escape physical and/or sexual abuse. Another 20% become homeless from deliberate government policy, when they “age out” of the foster care system at 16-18. In the US, most states discontinue financial support for the children under their care when they turn 18 or complete high school.
The Plight of Foster Kids Leaving Care
Between 20,000 and 25,000 American foster kids are “aged out” every year. According to Covenant House, one quarter become homeless within two to four years of leaving the system. Only half have jobs by age 24. Seventy-one percent of girls “aged out” of the foster care system will be pregnant by 21.
In recent years, a handful of states have enacted legislation (supported by the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act) allowing kids to remain in foster care until age 21.* However in most states, foster kids are still put out on their own at 18, without housing, financial assistance or social/emotional support.
“Aging Out” in Britain
This is one area, in which the US seems to be doing somewhat better than the UK. According to the Guardian, the Tory government declined to fund a highly successful 2008-2011 pilot program in which eleven local authorities allowed foster kids to stay in care until age 21.
A recent BBC Radio 4 special special highlights the crisis British foster children face when the government boots them out of foster care system at age 16-18. In Britain one-third of care leavers become homeless. Many end up in the criminal justice system. Fifty percent of women aged 18-24 in juvenile and female detention facilities are foster care leavers.
“Aging Out” in New Zealand
In New Zealand Child, Youth and Family support for foster children ends at 17.
In 2014, heavy lobbying aimed at extending this age to 18 failed. In this country, the only support available to foster care leavers comes from charities such as the Dingwall Trust
This support is limited to the Auckland area. Foster kids in other regions are out of luck.
New Zealand has a homeless population of 30,000 (of a total population of 4.5 million), and approximately half are under 25.
Homeless teenagers age 16-19 can get financial assistance through the Unsupported Youth Benefit. There are no programs to assist them with housing, vocational training or social/emotional support.
No Solution Under Monopoly Capitalism
Nearly all kids who end up in the foster care system have already been victimized by physical and/or sexual abuse. They go on to be re-victimized by brutal government policies that condemn them to lives of chronic unemployment, poverty and homelessness. A wealth of studies show that ending foster care support at 17-18 doesn’t save money – it always costs more in the long run, especially when “aged out” foster kids end up in the criminal justice system.
In other words, these are throwaway children, who the savagely indifferent corporate elite is happy to consign to the fringes of society.
I no longer have any illusions this problem can be solved under monopoly capitalism. A society that treats young people – our future citizens – so callously has no future.
*I can’t find a comprehensive list of states that have extended foster care support to age 21. I know Missouri, Florida, New York, Maryland and Illinois have, but there may be others.
photo credit: Tanya Dawn via photopin cc