Young Adults, Down and out ; U.S. Economy Pushes Thousands into Streets as Safety Nets Are Few

By Saulny, Susan | International Herald Tribune, December 20, 2012 | Go to article overview

Young Adults, Down and out ; U.S. Economy Pushes Thousands into Streets as Safety Nets Are Few


Saulny, Susan, International Herald Tribune


Services for the homeless traditionally focused on poor children and the elderly. But today, Americans aged 18 to 24 are the most likely to be unemployed. Many of them have nowhere to go at night.

Duane Taylor was studying the humanities in community college and living in his own place when he lost his job in a round of layoffs. Then he found, and lost, a second job. And a third.

Now, with what he calls "lowered standards" and a tenuous new position at a Jack in the Box fast-food restaurant, Mr. Taylor, 24, does not make enough to rent an apartment or share one. He sleeps on a mat in a homeless shelter, except when his sister lets him crash on her couch.

"At any time I could lose my job, my security," Mr. Taylor said, explaining how he was always the last hired and the first fired. "I'd like to be able to support myself. That's my only goal."

Across the United States, tens of thousands of underemployed and jobless young people, many with college credits or work histories, are struggling to house themselves in the wake of the recession, which has left workers 18 to 24 years old with the highest unemployment rate of all adults.

Those who can move back home with their parents -- the so-called boomerang set -- are the lucky ones. But that is not an option for those whose families have been hit hard by the economy, including Mr. Taylor, whose mother is barely scraping by while working in a laundromat. Without a stable home address, they are an elusive group that mostly couch-surfs or sleeps hidden away in cars or other private places, trying to avoid the lasting stigma of public homelessness during what they hope will be a temporary predicament.

These young adults are the new face of a U.S. homeless population, one that poverty experts and case workers say is growing. Yet the problem is mostly invisible. Most cities and states, focusing on homeless families, have not made special efforts to identify young adults, who tend to shy away from ordinary shelters out of fear of being victimized by an older, chronically homeless population. The unemployment rate and the number of young adults who cannot afford college "point to the fact there is a dramatic increase in homelessness" in that age group, said Barbara Poppe, the executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The Obama administration has begun an initiative with nine communities, most of them big cities, to seek out those 18 to 24 who are without a consistent home address. New York, Houston, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Boston are among the cities included in the effort.

"One of our first approaches is getting a more confident estimate," said Ms. Poppe, whose agency is coordinating the initiative.

Those who provide services to the poor in many cities say the economic recovery has not relieved the problem.

"Years ago, you didn't see what looked like people of college age sitting and waiting to talk to a crisis worker because they are homeless on the street," said Andrae Bailey, the executive director of the Community Food and Outreach Center, one of the largest charitable organizations in Florida. "Now that's a normal thing."

Los Angeles first conducted a count of young adults living on the street in 2011. It found 3,600, but the city had shelter capacity for only 17 percent of them.

"The rest are left to their own devices," said Michael Arnold, the executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. "And when you start adding in those who are couch surfing and staying with friends, that number increases exponentially."

Boston also carried out counts in 2010 and 2011. The homeless young adult population seeking shelter grew 3 percentage points to 12 percent of the 6,000 homeless people served over that period.

"It's a significant enough jump to know that it's also just the tip of the iceberg," said Jim Greene, director of emergency shelters for the Boston Public Health Commission. …

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