San Francisco Chronicle: Confronting a crisis of homeless youth in California

October 16, 2017

By Scott Wiener and Blanca E. Rubio

Homelessness has many faces, each with its unique story and set of challenges. As a state, we sometimes do a good job recognizing this reality by focusing resources, for example, on veterans or homeless families. Yet, we continually ignore one group with unique needs: our youth.

In California, we see the dramatic effects of youth homelessness — and our failure to address it — everywhere. We have the highest number of homeless youth in the country, with a minimum of 12,000 young people living on our streets, 80 percent of whom were unsheltered as of 2015. Of California State University students, 1 in 10 is homeless. Homeless young people live in urban, suburban and rural areas.

Despite these stark numbers, two-thirds of California counties have no shelters specifically designed to serve youth — reflecting a lack of focused resources and prioritization.

It’s easy to see why we ignore homeless youth, a group in the age range of 16 to 24. In our society, age 18 marks the beginning of adulthood, when you can vote, enlist in the military and live on your own free from your parents. However, there is a difference between a 19-year-old on the streets for the first time, and a 45-year-old who has been homeless for 20 years. Both populations need a path off the street, but homeless youth need age-appropriate support that is different — and separate — from adults.

The factors that cause youth homelessness are unique: rejection by families, fleeing or aging out of the foster care system, and abuse and neglect in their homes. Homeless youth are far more likely to be physically or sexually victimized than their peers. Up to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ and, of those youth, up to 40 percent cite family rejection as the reason for their homelessness.

Our homeless youth also are unique in that they are still learning and growing. In fact, up until the age of 25, their brains are still maturing. Connecting these young adults with job training, school and life learning skills can have a much greater effect on them as they continue to grow.

We recently held a joint hearing in the Legislature to shed light on our unacceptably high level of youth homelessness and to explore how California can get these young people off the streets. At the hearing, service providers, researchers, advocates and youth discussed what they see every day and how we can help. It was a powerful hearing, but in particular the testimony from the formerly homeless youth on their inability to even access the few services available to them struck a nerve.

We committed to taking action, including leading an effort to devote significantly more resources to prevention, intervention and housing for homeless youth. We also will work to create a comprehensive plan to prevent and end youth homelessness. It is clear that our shelters and resources need to be more focused on accommodating our LGBT youth, particularly transgender youth, who are often ostracized and alienated within the homeless community.

As with so many of our problems, homelessness requires solutions focused on the long view. Every young person we get off the streets and stabilized now is one more person with a shot of not living on the streets in 10 years. Indeed, one study found that homeless youth are five times more likely to become homeless adults than their peers. We need to develop strategies and dedicate funding to help our homeless youth succeed.

Scott Wiener is a Democrat representing San Francisco and Northern San Mateo County in the state Senate. Blanca Rubio is a Democrat representing the San Gabriel Valley in the state Assembly.

Read the op-ed on the San Francisco Chronicle website.