A Program to End Teen Homelessness


Vice Impact (2018)

Film Review

This film is about Covenant House, a remarkable teen homeless shelter in New Orleans. Although the founder James Kelly is Catholic and past co-president of Catholic Charities of New Orleans, the shelter is “Franciscan” in its refusal to impose religion or dogma on its staff or clients. It openly supports clients with LGBTQ issues, even though the Catholic Church condemns homosexuality and transgender identification.

Covenant House, in operation since 1988 caters to runaway, homeless and at-risk youth age up to age 22. Seventy percent of their clients have been physically and/or sexually abused and 80% have PTSD or some other mental illness. Twenty-five to thirty-nine percent are on psychotropic medication and some are overtly psychotic because they refuse to take medication. Some are single mothers who have their kids with them.

In addition to shelter and counseling, Covenant House also supports kids in attending local high schools, as well as offering GED, life skills and job readiness classes.

The documentary, which features moving vignettes of highly skilled counselors working with psychotic and highly troubled youth, is extremely moving.

Foster Care and Homelessness

homeless-teenHomeless Teen

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

Teen Homelessness: An American Disgrace

homeless teen

(Sharing some of my research for my new novel A Rebel Comes of Age.)

In the US, children under 18 represent one-third of the US homeless population. 2.8 million American children have at least one episode of homelessness every year, while 1.35 million are permanently homeless.

Sadly it’s not a new problem. Seattle first became concerned about their homeless teens in the 1990s. In 1999, shortly before moving to New Zealand, I worked in a community clinic with a special outreach program for homeless teenagers.

Prior to the 2008 economic meltdown, approximately ten percent of homeless teens had access to state and city-run shelters. Over the last five years, chronic state and city budget deficits have forced  most of them to close.

US Teen Homelessness Rivals the Third World

In third world countries, homeless children are called “street kids.” The US government prefers to call them “unaccompanied minors.” Giving it a fancy name on it doesn’t hide the fact that rate of homeless American children per capita is worse than some third world countries.

Among countries who keep a count of homeless children under 18, India has the highest rate of street children per capita, with 1 homeless child per 61 residents. Egypt is next with 1 per 110, then Pakistan (1 per 120), Kenya (1 per 133), Russia (1 per 141), and Congo (1 per 148).

The per capita rate of child homelessness in the US is 1 per 245 residents. This is worse than the Philippines (1 per 360), Honduras (1 per 370), Jamaica (1 per 419), Uruguay (1 per 1,000), and Morocco (1 per 1066). Germany, in contrast, has 1 homeless child per 4,100 residents.

Why American Teens Become Homeless

Approximately fifty percent of homeless teenagers wind up on the streets due to conflict with their parents. Another twenty percent are there due to a breakdown of their foster care placement. Others are homeless because their parents are homeless.

Of teenagers made homeless by family conflict, forty percent are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual teens whose parents refuse to accept their sexuality (25% of LGBT teens are rejected by their parents). Another large proportion are victims of physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse. Forty percent of homeless teenagers report being beaten. Twenty-five percent report a history of sexual abuse. Forty percent have parents who are mentally ill or who have substance abuse problems. Ten percent have run away because they’re pregnant. Some leave home because of alcohol and drug problems of their own.

Many homeless teens work at minimum wage jobs that don’t pay enough for an apartment. However faced with a (true) unemployment rate over 20%, most face long term unemployment.

Good links regarding teen homelessness:






photo credit: Tanya Dawn via photopin cc


Rebel cover

In A Rebel Comes of Age, seventeen-year-old Angela Jones and four other homeless teenagers occupy a vacant commercial building owned by Bank of America. The adventure turns deadly serious when the bank obtains a court order evicting them. Ange faces the most serious crisis of her life when the other residents decide to use firearms against the police SWAT team.

$3.99 ebook available (in all formats) from Smashwords: