Helping Michigan's homeless and runaway youth

May 2, 2014

Children make up a significant portion of Michigan's 86,000 homeless people. How are we helping young runaway and homeless youth have better outcomes?

More than 38,000 children in Michigan are living on their own, left to their own devices and fending for themselves (American’s Youngest Outcasts, 2010). The common national number is 1.7 million, often quoted when talking about homeless youth under the age of 18.

The good news is that more than 99 percent of these youth eventually go home. The bad news: Approximately 380,000 unaccompanied, single youth under age the age of 18 do not quickly return home.

The numbers are difficult to capture as many children are not announcing their homelessness. Instead, they work hard to go unnoticed, trying to blend in with their peers in the hopes of appearing "normal." But homelessness isn’t just about missing a quasi-idealistic upbringing within an intact family. It’s about being vulnerable to a variety of negative consequences.

The National Coalition for the Homeless reports homeless youth often exchange sex for food, clothing, and shelter, since earning enough money for basic needs is nearly impossible. As a result, homeless youth are at greater risk of contracting AIDS or HIV-related illnesses.

Obtaining an education is often extremely challenging, and in turn, the ability to ever support themselves financially is jeopardized.

Severe anxiety and depression, poor health and nutrition, and low self-esteem also plague this population. Getting an education is often extremely challenging, and in turn, the ability to ever support themselves financially is jeopardized.

Children find themselves homeless for a wide range of reasons. "It can be anything from mental illness on the individual or family side, to financial strain, to issues at school, to abuse, to family distress," says Michele Legleitner, program director for the Runaway and Homeless Youth Regional Alliance in southeast Michigan.

Coordinating Resources

Legleitner says wraparound services, built on resource collaboration, are at the forefront of preventive programs.

"We try to meet the youth in elementary school to help them avoid some of the stresses that can trigger running away or homelessness. If we catch it ahead of time and provide useful resources, hopefully we can avoid homelessness later in their lives," she says.

The Runaway and Homeless Youth Regional Alliance is an effort of four longstanding nonprofit agencies in southeastern Michigan to provide safe places and resources for youth. Alternatives for Girls, Common Ground, Ruth Ellis Center, and Starfish Family Services make up the alliance, each bringing specialized resources to the table.

The alliance was formed to better address runaway and youth issues in the region. "Though we still can't combat it all, coordinating and collaborating and identifying our areas of expertise have allowed us to better serve youth in our communities," says Legleitner. "We need more alliances and better communication. We lose when we're islands."

Responding to the Specific Needs of LGBT Youth

One of the alliance partners, the Ruth Ellis Center, addresses the specific needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth.

"We're seeing significant progress in regard to LGBTQ equality in the U.S.," says Mark Erwin, director of community development at the center. "It's being talked about openly and frequently on a national level, which creates a culture that is seemingly more open and accepting. For younger people growing up in this culture, it might make them more comfortable in coming out."

Though changing views might help youth more comfortably state their sexuality among peers, often times family reactions are less than positive. Conflict at home is often a result, with the worst-case scenario being a child is kicked out of the home, left to couch surf, or live on the streets – lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.

"The average age for gender identity recognition is six to eight years old. The average age for boys and girls to identify their sexual orientation is 13 and a half," Erwin says. "It's not unusual for children to be coming out or identifying as gender identity opposite in grade school."

The number of homeless and runaway youth identifying at LGBTQ has risen: 40 percent of homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender, or questioning.

As a result, Erwin believes, the number of homeless and runaway youth identifying at LGBTQ has risen: 40 percent of homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender, or questioning.

The Ruth Ellis Center is the only organization in the country that has a residential program for LGBTQ youth in the foster care and juvenile justice system.

Reaching Youth Through Social Media

In Traverse City, Third Level Crisis Intervention Center is reaching more at-risk youths by facing the growing technology trend head-on.

"We've looked at ways to communicate and reach youth and have incorporated texting and even utilizing Facebook to connect," says Third Level Youth Services supervisor, Nichole Dilloway.

Dilloway says that despite the financial status of many of their program participants, youth often have data plans that allow them to text and stay in touch, even if they can't always be reached by an actual phone call.

"Not only are our outreach counselors equipped with phones to text with youth, our crisis center offers texting crisis services as well," says Dilloway.

Giving Youth a Voice

"A lot of agencies haven taken a 'positive youth development' stance on programming," says Legleitner. "Administrators and programs are now starting to value the opinion of the youth they serve. We're understanding the power behind giving them a voice."

Positive youth development makes the youth part of the decision-making. They provide input on the goals of organizational programming and what that programming looks like.

Positive youth development makes the youth part of the decision-making. They provide input on the goals of organizational programming and what that programming looks like.

"We must recognize that youths are experts in their own lives and provide a space where they have ownership, a voice, and a platform," explains Erwin.

This approach is key in seeing successful outcomes. From forming youth advisory boards and councils, to being a part of CEO interview and selection panels, youth have a say.

When they are given opportunities to make the shift in self-esteem from feeling low and like they are someone who is just a throwaway to feeling valued and listened to, positive changes can happen.

"They become empowered," says Legleitner. "They begin to mature on their own and might develop the courage to take control or the confidence speak up to authority figures."

By empowering some of Michigan's most at-risk youth, we begin to open the door to transformation and opportunity – and prevent more youth from being vulnerable to the many perils of homelessness. 

–This story originally appeared in Issue Media Group's website, Night Light