How do the impacts of homelessness differ between younger and older adults, and are homeless young adults likely to continue experiencing homelessness later in life? Working at ROOTS (Rising out of the Shadows) puts me in a unique position to look at these questions. We’re unusual in that we have two service programs in the University District for two essentially different age groups. We serve young people with case management and a shelter. The latter of which serves 18- to 25-year-olds, the largest in Washington State, and the weekly Friday Feast, which has no age restrictions (our average patron is male, 50 or older).
I’ve gleaned some generalizations about how these groups differ. For example, older patrons aren’t as private and often are more concerned about housing than young people. Young people seem more optimistic about the future and see the situation as temporary. Our young patrons tend to be oblivious to the very real systems that created their situation, such as the foster care and juvenile justice systems, while our older folks are often able to name barriers and sound defeated about their ability to overcome them.
According to data from King County’s All Home, only 13 percent of the single adults experiencing homelessness are ages 18 to 24. But when All Home asked the entire homeless population how many of them experienced homelessness before their 25th birthday, a staggering 45 percent did.
I was suspicious of All Home’s data, so I did a random survey of Friday Feast patrons. While my sample (26) is in no way representational, a full 50 percent of those asked had also experienced homelessness before age 25. So All Home and ROOTS line up here. Those who had been unhoused earlier had either first been homeless with their whole family or more commonly experienced young adult “coming-of-age” crises that had resulted in homelessness. We see these stories so often among our shelter guests.
The most common narratives at the shelter include:
● My parents kicked me out (three times the rate for kids who are LGBTQ)
● I need to make my own way (leaving poverty)
● I lost touch with my family when I was in foster care or incarceration.
What this suggests is that unlike at Friday Feast, where the young folks and old folks rarely sit together, these groups are very connected. Young folks without housing are at risk of becoming old folks without housing. By intervening early in family homelessness and supporting young adults in crisis, we may be able to cut in half the rate of single adults living outside for future generations.
So what can you do? How can you intervene? Here are some ideas:
Advocate: Claim your representational democracy by reaching out to your elected officials in Olympia and supporting a budget that fully funds education without removing funds for housing and services for those who need housing. And keep at it, even after the budget is passed. Sign up for action alerts from groups like the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, ROOTS and the ACLU. In a nation that has 2.2 homeless people for every vacant unit of housing, systemic change is the only way forward.
Learn: Find speaking events that feature those who are experiencing the dysfunctional system instead of those who are managing it. I’ll never forget my first Nickelsville panel. I try to create the same in roots events, where those we serve are the experts.
Engage: Join the 170 volunteers who come to the ROOTS shelter once a week to serve hot meals, set up beds and become allies to our guests. This is a critical time as many of our student volunteers take the summer off, so we need compassionate adults to click the volunteer tab on our website and find the option that best fits their schedule. If just 30 do so from this article, ROOTS shelter operations will be secure all summer. Find out more information on our website.
Young, old, we are in this together. Thank you for caring.
Kristine Scott is the executive director of ROOTS. Her 30-year career in services has been shaped by people who have mentored and informed her from the perspective of life without housing.
This story has been corrected to adjust the number of homeless people compared to the number of vacant units.
Read the full May 17 issue.
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