Homelessness has been an ongoing issue in the United States of America for hundreds of years. This vulnerable population ranges from men, women, veterans, individuals from the LGBTQI community, families, and even youth. The state of California holds 4 out of the 10 most homeless populated cities in the entire country which include: San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, and the worst of all, Los Angeles. These individuals may be found sleeping on friend’s couches, in their cars, in boxes, or perhaps even on the cold street floors. Although California attempts to provide aid for the homeless, it is simply not enough as statistics continue to remain high.
Although every homeless individual is just as important as the next, perhaps one of the most concerning are those that fall into the youth category. This category is best defined as any individual under the age of 25 living either without a guardian or completely on their own. Many youth individuals decide to flee from home for various reasons whether it’d be them being kicked out by their parent/guardian, leaving homes that contained high levels of abuse, being part of the child welfare system, poverty, issues with the criminal justice system, mental health, substance abuse or being discriminated against due to race, gender, or even sexual preferences. (Homeless Hub 2009) Regardless of the reasoning, “young homeless people are at risk for a host of troubles with long-lasting impact, including substance abuse, mental health problems and physical abuse, as well as sexual exploitation. Up to 40 percent of homeless youth are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender” (Wiltz 2017)
Effective January 1st, 2017 was California’s policy 12957, which was emplaced in order to serve and support the homeless youth by providing a form of housing whether it’d be permanent, transitional, or temporary. Though not much history can be found on this specific policy, part b of this code states, “the provision of housing for youth is hereby authorized and shall not be considered unlawful age discrimination, notwithstanding any other provision of law” (Housing Discrimination Act of 2017, 2017). Providing localities with $500 million in one-time funding to address homelessness was the Homeless Emergency Aid Program which was established in June 2018. (John Burton 2018) Out of this $500 million, only 5% was set aside for the homeless youth.
The website www.acf.hhs.gov/fysb/grants/california-rhy provides homeless youth with resources to multiple programs and services. However, California alone is recorded to have the highest number of homeless youth in the entire country. Despite the active government policy, 2/3 of California's counties do not have shelters or programs to serve this homeless population, ultimately reflecting a lack of focused resources and prioritization. (Wiener & Rubio 2017) The homeless population continues to grow, but the funding to assist them does not. Although the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides services for the homeless youth, between years 2009-2012, nearly 40,000 of these individuals were turned away due to insufficient funds. (Watson 2013) To make matters worse, states in total spend approximately $5.7 billion incarcerating youth for non-violent offenses such as homelessness.
Shelters that are made available often times have limitations to who is eligible for receiving assistance. One specific agency states that in order to qualify, “the youth may not be on formal probation, youth is non-suicidal, youth is not actively drug or alcohol dependent” (Redwood Community 2018) This issue is significant, as there are an estimated 1.6 million homeless youth, 35% of them living in California alone. These individuals have already been disappointed or turned down by people they once looked up to, so to not have the resources needed by the government alone will only signify the doubts they may already have instilled in them. One study conducted in UC Berkeley, was designed in order to test and analyze the attitudes that these homeless individuals had about themselves and their future. The research found that substance abuse or past trauma played a significant role in the way these youths felt. Some even shared that effects of past trauma “did not allow them to think about their future” and that “only youth with mainstream hopes for the future reported a wide range of service utilization, including housing and employment services” (Zhang & Auerswald p.52). If shelters refuse to help individuals with substance abuse, or those with suicidal thoughts, how is it possible to provide services without discrimination?
Discrimination may play a significant role as to why certain homeless youth are not being provided with the services that they need. For instance, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans may be offered fewer or poorer resources than those of Caucasians and members of the LGBTQI may also face discrimination because other individuals may believe that they have violated important social norms. (Jansson p 38) Watson worries, “the problems and barriers these youth face, clearly hinder their ability to become contributing, successful members of their families and society. If we don’t help them while they are young, they may well become tomorrow’s chronically homeless adults” (Watson 2013)
The social attention as well as media coverage regarding homeless youth falls short. Many homeless youths may attempt to blend in with non-homeless friends, thus not wanting to disclose themselves as being homeless. This denial may lie heavily on the amount of stigma that is held toward the homeless population in general. Many individuals may dehumanize this population and refer to them as the 'other' due to the lack of sensitivity and empathy they may feel towards them. It is essential to shed light on those who are 'invisible' and avoid stereotypes. One individual expressed, 'People are dying on the streets, and they’re dying quickly, it doesn't matter whether they have been on the streets for 3 years or 30” (Kim & Boyle 2016).
I personally became aware of this ongoing issue as I saw my own community begin to drastically change. This city of Covina always had homeless, as do most communities, however, these rates began to grow over the years. In fact, the city recently decided to drive out a homeless group (mostly teens) that were living under a freeway. Though they were able to get them out of that specific location, these homeless had nowhere to turn but to simply settle in the city’s parks. The city had absolutely no plan and are now facing an even greater issue. In addition, there are not enough youth shelters nearby. Many of the shelters focus on accepting women and children, some even strictly refusing men. Because of this, many homeless individuals are having to fend for themselves, including the youth.
Although there is a policy in place, it is not enough to help alleviate statistics. The policy has been ineffective in supporting the homeless youth, thus causing greater issues. It is important that programs are given sufficient funding in order to provide shelters and services needed by the homeless youth as well as create more programs that are available to every single homeless individual. One other possible solution, which has been proven to be effective, is to focus on creating more drop-in centers. Drop-in centers are designed to be safe havens for homeless youths and have been implemented to “move young people away from homelessness and toward employment, housing, and stability” (Ohio State University 2016) Basic needs are provided such as washers, dryers, hot meals, showers, employment assistance, housing support, mental health support, and even clothing. (Youthlink 2018)
In addition to providing more assistance to the homeless youth, it is even more important that individuals begin to change their perspectives of the population as a whole. The first step is wanting to help the homeless. The next is realizing that the homeless youth need to get out of their situation and into the arms of guidance and support. There is a reason why the youth turned to the streets and left their home. With the youth, as well as all other homeless individuals, one must try to open their mind and ask why the individual is on the street and understand that they are human too. They are somebody’s son, daughter, sister, cousin, etc. and it is important that they are viewed with respect instead of blame or shame. The homeless have feelings, they have hearts, they can breathe. They must be valued in order for change to take place. “Extend an open hand and mind. Listen to them, for they have a lot to say. We can understand if we try to comprehend what has befallen them. Then, and only then, will we begin to understand the plight of people who are homeless” (Pitman 2009). This is not the life they planned on living and we must understand that.
My plan of action was to lobby a council member in the city of Covina. Since my father is a city employee, he was able to help guide me along this process and point me in the right direction. He had said that council member, Victor Linares would probably be the most helpful and perhaps most willing to schedule an appointment with me. Because my focus was on the homeless youth, I was extremely interested in what Mr. Linares personally thought about this specific population, along with understanding how the city provided services to them. He is the youngest member in council and one of the fairly newest as he was elected in 2017. Through email, I had informed Mr. Linares that I was a student at USC and that I was interested in the homeless youth. His response was, 'I'd be more than willing to schedule an appointment with you.' This meeting took place on Friday, October 26th, 2018 via Skype.
Prior to this online meeting, I had already had a pretty set idea of how I was going to address the issue and then discuss potential solutions. Once the meeting began, I was surprised to see another woman beside Mr. Linares. This woman’s name was Nuala Gasser. Nuala Gasser is an employee of the city of Covina, her specific position title is Senior Housing and CDBG Economic Development Manager. Mr. Linares shared that if anyone knew the most about the city’s homeless, it’d be her. The conversation began with some facts on the entire homeless population, which they both described as an “epidemic,” not only in the city of Covina, but the entire nation. I grew extremely comfortable as they made me feel like this was less of a lobby visit and more of a simple conversation, both in which were extremely open and helpful to any questions or concerns I had.
During the meeting, I mentioned that my father had shared with me that a lot of the homeless found in the city parks are primarily teens and young adults, along with the recent city decision to flush out the homeless that were living in one of the city’s tunnels. One of my main questions was, “California has a policy that is set in place in order to provide services and housing options for the homeless youth. How does the city itself help support this specific population?” “Clearly the city isn’t doing enough because the numbers currently appear to be multiplying. However, we do have potential projects as well as organizations that are working closely with the city to serve the entire homeless population” (V. Linares, personal communication, October 26, 2018). One setback he shared was the difficulty of building more shelters in the Covina area. Mrs. Gasser added, 'residents aren't happy when they see homeless shelters near their homes, or even near the schools where their children may attend.' Location is key but appears to be a difficult situation when trying to appeal to both residents and the homeless. Mr. Linares also did address my concern of the city's decision to flush out the homeless that were living in a nearby tunnel. He shared that the city did not want to disturb the homeless as they had grown comfortable in their small location, however, that it was the local businesses that had reached out to the city because they were not happy with the amount of people 'hanging around' their businesses. Although the city resolved the business owners’ problem, the city, on the other hand, was now facing an even greater issue as the homeless began to reside all throughout the city, including the parks.
To conclude our conversation, we discussed possible solutions as well the current effort the city had in positively impacting the homeless population. Though the city itself does not have enough support for the homeless, the city works closely with neighboring communities such as Pomona, Arcadia, and El Monte in providing housing and services. Mr. Linares mentioned that the city was currently working on creating food banks and having them actively running by Thanksgiving of this year in addition to other goals that are expected to be met within 1-3 years. When I suggested the idea of drop-in centers for the young adults and teens who are homeless, Mrs. Gasser stated that funding affects the services that the city is able to provide. In fact, funding is limited and the city relies on federal funds such as the Community Development Block Grant and Housing money to fund transitional housing. In the meantime, however, the city has created several volunteer groups, committees, and programs to address and combat homelessness. The city is currently focused on aligning planning efforts to achieve mutual goals such as the County Homeless Initiative Strategies which include preventing homelessness, increasing income, subsidize housing, and increase affordable/homeless housing, but has yet to provide case management and services as well as creating a coordinated entry system (City of Covina Plan 2018).
This homeless epidemic has affected the lives of men, women, veterans, mentally disabled, and the youth just to name a few. In fact, ending homelessness is one of the greatest challenges social workers face. It is essential that attitudes towards this population change and that individuals begin to care and become more willing in assisting the homeless. Stern states, “the environment in which people live and work influences the decisions they make, the opportunities they enjoy, the challenges they face, and the ideas they have” (Stern 141). To see another individual lying on the street in his/her community should be concerning and of great importance. It is critical to remember that those who are homeless are still people, and to consider that perhaps they simply got lost somewhere along the way instead of blaming them for the current state in which they are in. The stigma held against homeless is unfair and does nothing to help serve or assist them.
As social workers, one must raise awareness of the number of homeless found on any given night, followed by possible solutions to assist them. It is important to note that although there is a policy that was intended to help the homeless youth, a great majority of them are still left without any form of assistance. If left alone, the homeless can continue to suffer from severe trauma and may continue to negatively impact their health more than it already may be. “Transition-aged youth experiencing homelessness constitute a particular vulnerable population with high rates of substance use, traumatic experiences, institutional experiences, mental health disorder symptoms, and HIV and sexually transmitted infection risk behaviors” (Henwood et.al., 2015). This is detrimental to their health in all aspects whether it’d be mental, physical, or emotional. It is essential that social workers advocate for this vulnerable population and assist them in attaining a promising future. These youths need someone they can rely on and confide in and someone who is ultimately truly concerned and willing to help and understand the situation in which they are in. Policymakers should also focus on creating more drop-in centers to serve as safe spaces where the youths can turn to and trust to support them with their daily needs and essentials. After all, social workers must “pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people” (NASW Code of Ethics).
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