Monday, October 26, 2009

The New Homeless: Teens

More collateral damage of the Great Recession:

Over the past two years, government officials and experts have seen an increasing number of children leave home for life on the streets, including many under 13. Foreclosures, layoffs, rising food and fuel prices and inadequate supplies of low-cost housing have stretched families to the extreme, and those pressures have trickled down to teenagers and preteens.

Federal studies and experts in the field have estimated that at least 1.6 million juveniles run away or are thrown out of their homes annually. But most of those return home within a week, and the government does not conduct a comprehensive or current count.

The best measure of the problem may be the number of contacts with runaways that federally-financed outreach programs make, which rose to 761,000 in 2008 from 550,000 in 2002, when current methods of counting began. (The number fell in 2007, but rose sharply again last year, and the number of federal outreach programs has been fairly steady throughout the period.)

Too young to get a hotel room, sign a lease or in many cases hold a job, young runaways are increasingly surviving by selling drugs, panhandling or engaging in prostitution, according to the National Runaway Switchboard, the federally-financed national hot line created in 1974. Legitimate employment was hard to find in the summer of 2009; the Labor Department said fewer than 30 percent of teenagers had jobs.
Middle class students, who have never had to work and have perfectly safe homes to return to at the holidays, often have a hard time believing these stories. We assume most teens out on the streets are victims of their own decision (i.e. running away), but the numbers of teens who are "throw aways", who are kicked out of their homes by their parents, has been rising for years.

Last year for example, Nebraska was inundated with cast off teenagers when their "safe haven law" failed to specify the exact age of children who can be left at hospitals (without recourse from the government). There were stories of parents driving cross-country to dump their teenagers off at emergency rooms throughout Nebraska.

Now, throw in the Great Recession, job losses, foreclosures, etc., and the message some teens are getting from their parents is: we're're on your own now, kid.

We can debate the responsibility of adults who made poor financial decisions till the cows come home, but these kids living on the streets are victims and should be dealt with as such. Ignoring children and teens as they turn to prostitution, delinquency and other crimes to support themselves out on the streets is something the "Child Savers Movements" eradicated in the 19th century.

Surely we can do better than that in the 21st century.

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