A single candle may not provide much light, but bring together dozens of candles and they’ll create enough light to brighten a dark autumn night. That’s exactly what happened on Nov. 16, when members of the Youth on Their Own coalition (YOTO) and others gathered in Portsmouth’s Market Square for a candlelight vigil to raise awareness about runaway and homeless youth.
“I don’t think many people think New Hampshire has a homeless youth problem, but they’d be surprised,” says Rick Alleva, a UNH Extension youth and family resiliency specialist and an active member of the coalition.
Youth homelessness is an ongoing problem in the Granite State. A 2011 survey found that 27 percent of N.H. 17 –year-olds had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Meanwhile, 13 percent of 19-year-old youth reported they’d experienced homelessness within the previous two years, while 35 percent of 21-year-olds reported they’d experienced homelessness within the previous two years.
However, these numbers may not accurately reflect the problem, as homeless youth are surprisingly underrepresented and undocumented. Some may not identify as being homeless out of fear, and it may even be hard for experts to identify a youth who’s experiencing homelessness.
A collaborative effort between Waypoint (formerly Child and Family Services of N.H.), the state Department of Juvenile Justice Services, the N.H. Division of Children, Youth and Families, Seacoast Youth Services, Families First, the Goodwin Center, UNH Extension and others, YOTO aims to prevent and end youth homelessness and creatively address transitional challenges of youth and young adults.
A Light Shining in the Darkness
Attending the vigil were some of the formerly homeless youth. They held signs reading, “All I Did Was Turn 18,” “Walk In My Shoes,” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Alongside them were professionals like Alleva and other coalition members.
“As the snow fell during the vigil, I was moved by the positive energy and enthusiasm expressed by formerly homeless youth and many passersby. It was encouraging that together we will continue to shine the light on solutions to address runaway and homeless youth needs here in New Hampshire,” says Alleva.
New Services Needed
Mandy Lancaster is a program manager with Waypoint and YOTO’s chair. “Because young people enter into homelessness due to myriad intersecting circumstances, we need a continuum of services that reflect their wildly varied needs,” she says. “There are significant systems gaps, and although it can be daunting, I believe YOTO can start to fill some of those gaps.”
The coalition’s work focuses on youth ages 18-24. These can be difficult years for many youth. Some have aged out of the foster care system and are on their own with only a patchwork support system to help their transition into adulthood. Additionally, many struggle with mental health challenges, including substance misuse disorders. Coping with those challenges without a home or easy access to health care presents additional difficulties.
The coalition has found that young people often need a stable place to sleep at night so that they can find a job and get on their feet. Programs might include a Transitional Living Facility where young adults can live for up to 3 months while they get a job, save money and find a place to live. There is also a need for regional youth shelters in our state as many youth avoid adult homeless shelters due to perceived safety issues. Currently there are no shelters in the state dedicated solely to youth in this age group.
In addition there are other services that could help homeless youth, such as Safe Homes/Host Homes, a mentoring program to guide youth and help them make good decisions, coordinated and low barrier healthcare, to include mental health care and robust educational and vocational programs to help this population find good paying jobs.
Unfortunately for homeless youth, there aren’t currently a lot of options or resources. The coalition hopes to change that through networking, sharing resources, data collection and analysis, community education and collective organizing and advocacy towards a solution. Alleva knows that caring people can and do make a difference.
“I feel a safe and stable place to live is something that all people, especially young people, need and deserve. It’s a basic human right. Imagine all the homes in the U.S. with empty bedrooms while kids couch surf, and crash under bridges or in makeshift tent sites…where the risk of crisis is magnified! I’ve been involved with runaway and homeless youth services since I began as a youth worker in the 1970s and have seen what can be done when we work together to make a difference. That’s what the coalition is hoping to achieve,” says Alleva.
You Can Help!
To get involved with YOTO, contact Mandy Lancaster at Waypoint at LancasterM@waypointnh.org or 603-518-4213. If you or someone you know is experiencing youth homelessness, contact the National Runaway Safeline at 800-RUNAWAY or 1800RUNAWAY.org.