Hemmed in by low wages, pricey rental markets and family instability, more young people are crashing on couches of friends or acquaintances, sleeping in cars or turning to the streets, a new study has found.
Researchers with Chapin Hall, a youth policy center at the University of Chicago, surveyed in 2016 and 2017 more than 26,000 young people and their families across the country to gauge how many of them had been homeless during some period of the previous year. Their results were alarming: One in 10 people ages 18 to 25 had experienced homelessness. For adolescents, the number was 1 in 30. They concluded that nearly 3.5 million young adults and 660,000 adolescents had been homeless within the previous year.
Matthew Morton, a Chapin Hall research fellow, said he aims to dispel the notion that homelessness afflicts mostly older men. His survey identified college students and graduates and employed young people who struggled to find a permanent place to stay. Researchers also found it was no less prevalent in rural areas than in urban ones.
"Our findings probably challenge the images of homelessness. Homelessness is young," Morton said. "It's more common than people expect and it's largely hidden."
That was true in the District, where officials counted more homeless children and parents than homeless single men last year. The number of homeless families soared by more than 30 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to a federal estimate released last spring. City officials and advocates for the poor attributed the growth in homeless families to rising home costs and a city policy of guaranteeing any homeless family shelter.
The researchers relied on a broad definition of homelessness and counted as homeless young people who had run away from home — even for a night — as well as those who were forced to sleep on couches or stay with friends temporarily. Children who run away are more likely to face homelessness as adults, Morton said, and many of the young people who researchers spoke to were forced out of family homes after they came out as gay.
The study marked the first time researchers had used a nationally representative survey to capture the picture of youth homelessness. Previously, researchers relied on "point in time" counts, which tallied only people who were homeless on a particular day. Morton said those counts probably underestimated the prevalence of youth homelessness, because young people are more likely to move in and out of it than older people.
The findings "are staggering. They are alarming, but they're not necessarily surprising," Morton said. "Many young people are getting hammered in this economy . . . and far too many youth have experienced trauma and lack stable family situations. You have a major affordable housing crisis."
Neither Kera Pingree, 21, nor Dee Baillet, 27, fit the stereotype of homelessness. Pingree is pursuing a degree at Southern Maine Community College while working at the University of Southern Maine, and Baillet is a college graduate. They share their experiences as policy advisers for advocacy groups for homeless youth.
When Baillet came out as gay to his mother at 17, she told him he could no longer live at home. So he went to his bedroom and packed a duffel bag, unsure of where he would go.
"I had to turn to the streets," Baillet said. "I stayed around with family and friends, just couch surfing as much as I could."
But it didn't stop him from graduating from high school and ending up in college, where he finished early and took a teaching job in Indianapolis. But his housing situation fell through. Broke and unsure of where to go, he first considered staying in a shelter, but it felt unsafe. So he slept in his car.
Baillet works as a supervisor at an urgent care clinic in Columbus, Ohio, where he grew up. He volunteers at a homeless shelter. He said that many of the short-term solutions for homelessness are geared toward older men and that shelters can be unsafe and uncomfortable places for homeless youth.
Pingree, 21, had a daughter at 15 and was separated from the girl three years later, when family conflict forced a move. Pingree bounced from a friend's house to a partner's house, where Pingree said there were bed bugs and drugs.
Pingree remained separated from the little girl for four months until space at a family shelter opened up.
"When I was 16, I was really itching to get out of the house," said Pingree, who faced abuse and food shortages at home. "Optimally there would have been a program to allow me to live on my own with my daughter."
Pingree is a youth leader with Youth and Community Engagement, a community organizing group attached to the university. Pingree also serves as a policy adviser on homelessness for the National Youth Advisory Council.
Now living in a two-bedroom apartment in Portland, Maine, Pingree said people are surprised to learn of their homeless past.
"There's a lot of times people are shocked to find out someone was homeless," Pingree said.