Homelessness, broadly defined as the experience of sleeping in places in which people are not meant to live, staying in shelters, or temporarily staying with others and not having a safe and stable alternative, is a major public health challenge facing 4.2 million youth across the United States. LGBTQ+, Black, and Latinx youth are disproportionately affected by homelessness compared to their heterosexual/cisgender and racial/ethnic counterparts. Moreover, homelessness does not occur in isolation, rather, is interconnected with a host of other health and health-related social needs, which if not adequately addressed can result in lifelong negative consequences.
The generous support of the Aetna Foundation for the “Addressing the Health and Health-Related Social Needs of Homeless Youth” project gave the Weitzman Institute the unique opportunity to collaborate with youth of color and LGBTQ+ youth who have experienced housing insecurity to examine the web of factors contributing to homelessness in New Britain, Connecticut. Using a community based participatory research methodology known as photovoice, participants were trained in photography and provided cameras to capture visual representations of their everyday lives. Their pictures and stories bring their concerns to life, and urge community leaders and policymakers to take action.
Key Findings from Photovoice:
Participants recounted experiences of living in homes that were overcrowded or poorly maintained; doubling up or couch surfing with extended family members and/or friends; living in places not meant for human habitation such as by railroad tracks, in the forest, in cars, and other places outside; staying at overnight warming centers; and living in emergency or domestic violence shelters. Some participants experienced housing and homelessness alone, while others experienced it with their immediate family members. Additionally, the frequency and duration of experiences ranged amongst participants. Despite the varying experiences of participants, the narrative process of sharing photos revealed the following key factors contributing to the experience of youth housing insecurity and homelessness: inadequate professional mental health and substance use services, failing social support systems, and basic human needs not being met.
Youth photovoice participants provided the following recommendations on how to address the challenges they face as homeless youth in Connecticut.
Improve Mental Health Services in Schools: Youth and adolescents who experience homelessness are six times more likely to have two or more mental health disorders than their housed peers. Schools are a critical setting for youth to receive mental and behavioral health services. However, many schools lack high-quality services for youth and do not foster an environment where youth feel comfortable seeking out services. School Administrators should ensure there are sufficient numbers of social workers, psychologists, peer supporters, and other providers in their schools who understand the lived experiences of the students and are properly trained in trauma-informed care. Enhancing school-based interventions and providing high-quality treatment will lead to improved educational outcomes, including higher rates of graduation, improved emotional well-being, and greater resiliency.
Improve Connection to Health and Social Services at Temporary Housing Locations: Homeless youth have health and social needs which can be difficult to address when trying to navigate housing insecurity. Having dedicated staff with knowledge of the various resources available to youth, and who can refer and connect them to those resources, can improve access to these services and help them enroll in the various programs and services that they are eligible for. This includes helping youth sign up for health insurance, connecting them to organizations that offer substance use, mental health, and other health-related care, providing transportation, and helping youth find more permanent and stable housing. By providing a one stop resource center, temporary housing sites will help youth access the resources to improve their short and long-term health and change their life trajectories in a positive and meaningful way.
Build More Temporary and Permanent Housing Shelters: Often, youth are not able to find a safe, clean space to go when becoming homeless, which leads to them living in their car or on the street, and heightening their risk of exposure to violent and trauma-inducing situations. The lack of affordable permanent housing is also a barrier to homeless youth transitioning out of a shelter or other temporary housing, and to creating housing stability. Increasing the number of high-quality, clean, and safe units that can house homeless youth can help result in better educational and health outcomes, mitigate the stress and trauma associated with homelessness, and help reduce the overall prevalence of youth homelessness.
Expand SNAP Eligibility and Benefits: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides monthly food benefits in the form of pre-paid debit cards to low-income individuals and families. The eligibility requirements vary by state, but applicants must fall below the income limit and must work or participate in a work program for at least 20 hours per week in order to receive benefits. Furthermore, in many cases, students are not eligible for SNAP benefits. For those who do qualify, the benefit amount may be as low as $15 per month and thus, not sufficient to pay for enough food for the month. Policymakers should modify the SNAP eligibility requirements and benefit amounts to accommodate homeless youth, many of whom are students, not able to work, and/or whose incomes are just high enough where they either don’t qualify for benefits or receive an insufficient amount.
More details about the youth homelessness photovoice project, including photos, narratives, podcast, and policy brief created with the youth partners can be found on our website.