Silence Still Equals Death: Our Collective Silence About COVID-19’s Impact on Homeless Young People

Photo credit: Giving Compass Description of the image: An individual is seated on the ground, dressed in a dark-colored hoodie, pants, and flip-flops, and bent over with their hands together in front of their face. On the ground in front of them is a piece of paper that reads, “Help”.

Every morning I get my news by reading two newspapers, Democracy Now, and a few email listservs, and with one exception, I haven’t seen anything in the major media outlets about the impact COVID-19 is having on homeless young people since the coronavirus touched down in the United States. No, I’m not talking about children who are homeless with their families of origin. I’m referring to the over two million young people between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five who were homeless and on their own before COVID-19, or pre-Roni. Depending on their situation, these young people are referred to by a variety of different terms: homeless, unhoused, runaways, unaccompanied, throwaways, street youth, couch-surfers, etc. Regardless of the terminology used, I have yet to hear any public discussion about how the pandemic is affecting this group of young people who were already marginalized and invisible, and had higher mortality rates pre-Roni.

Almost every article I read assumes that we’re all sheltering-in-place, terribly inconvenienced by wearing masks, stressed out because we’re sheltering with loved ones, and most importantly, we’re all comfortably ensconced in our homes. The few articles I’ve seen about the challenges homeless people face because they don’t have access to running water or hand sanitizer, can’t maintain a physical distance of six feet from others, and don’t have a home to shelter in, never mention the unique experience of being a homeless young person in the wealthiest country in the world. Like their housed peers, homeless young people are developmentally prone to making poor choices, but being homeless exposes them to unsafe, risky, and traumatic experiences. Although it’s impossible to get an exact count of the number of homeless young people, surveys and research studies show that they are disproportionately Black, Latinx, indigenous, and multiracial; a significant number identify as LGBTQ, meet the criteria for depression and PTSD, and struggle with substance abuse. Some pathways that lead to homelessness for young people are: family instability and conflict, family rejection due to sexual or gender identity, physical and/or sexual abuse, having been in the foster care or ‘juvenile justice’ systems, economic deprivation, and being a human trafficking survivor.

One might assume that I think about homeless young people because I live in New York City, the city with the largest homeless population in the country. But that’s not true. Homeless young people live in rural, suburban, and urban areas across the U.S. It’s because I’ve had the pleasure of working with homeless young people off and on since the ’90s. With that said, it’s been heartbreaking witnessing their attempts to survive in a world that is youth-focused, but only pays attention to those who are ‘classically’ appealing (read: slim, White, able-bodied, and middle-class). The pleasure comes from observing homeless young people’s resistance against society’s efforts to erase them: their ability to co-create families of choice (think Pose); their fortitude in spite of the many obstacles they face; how they love on and protect one another by sharing information about people, organizations, and places that are safe; and the ways they incorporate harm reduction into their sex lives and substance use.

Because they were homeless, food, shelter, and money were always on the minds of the largely Black, Latinx, and multiracial young people I’ve worked with as a psychotherapist, college professor, and clinical supervisor at an HIV/AIDS prevention program. I still recall eighteen-year-old Vivienne[1] telling me that she just gave a fifty-year-old ‘john’ a blowjob before our meeting so that she could get her first meal of the day. As a community college professor, every semester, I strategized with students who were couch-surfing because they’d been evicted from their apartments when they lost their jobs. When my nineteen-year-old client, Miguel came out as transgender, his grandmother threw him out. Miguel subsequently turned to sex work as a way to earn money for food and shelter.

These conversations were pre-Roni, so how is COVID-19 affecting homeless young people? While Roni doesn’t change their need for food, safety, education, medical and dental care, and stable housing, it exacerbates the means by which homeless young people can obtain these things. Pre-Roni, they may have engaged in survival sex, sold drugs and their belongings, shoplifted, worked in the adult entertainment industry, or sold blood, sperm, or ovaries. However, with physical distancing rules still in place, homeless young people have fewer and riskier options to earn money than before. The pandemic increases the likelihood that they will move in with ‘a date’ because they have no other housing options. If they were living in a transitional living program or a youth shelter pre-Roni, these could be unsafe now because they are usually close quarters. Homeless young people who go to hospital emergency rooms are likely to be turned away because they don’t fit the profile of someone at risk for COVID-19. This is despite the fact that homeless youth have a higher risk of contracting infectious diseases.

What can we do? Unless we seize this opportunity to overhaul the inherently destructive sociopolitical system that pits us against each other, we will continue to have young people who are forced to leave their families due to economic deprivation, homonegativity, cisgenderism, and heterosexism. In the meanwhile, donations of food, money, clothing, and office supplies to underfunded nonprofits that work with homeless young people are excellent ways to support them. Outreach programs for homeless youth, mobile medical clinics for homeless youth, homeless youth drop-in centers, youth shelters and transitional housing programs, and education and training programs that meet the special needs of homeless young people need our assistance now. Organizations like the Ali Forney Center, Covenant House, the National Runaway Safeline, and Larkin Street Youth Services are well-known for their life-affirming and life-saving work with homeless young people. In addition, lobbying local and state officials to increase funding for youth and families experiencing homelessness, services for those who age out of foster care, and more school social workers is also vital. This funding can both prevent youth homelessness and increase services for those who are currently homeless.

On May 24th, 2020, the New York Times listed the names of 1,000 of the 100,000 people in the U.S. who have died of COVID-19. I scoured the pages, searching for the names of those under the age of 25 and found several. While I was impressed by how the New York Times reporters combed through obituaries and death notices around the country, I couldn’t help but note that the children and young adults listed were housed and had families that supported them. They had safety nets that provided them with the means to go to the hospital — even if it was in vain. If there are young people with stable housing dying of COVID-19, what are the prospects for homeless young people?

[1] All of the names of the young people mentioned in this essay are pseudonyms.

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Dr. Lourdes Dolores Follins

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Comes from a long line of intrepid Black women. When she’s not writing, she’s a psychotherapist for QTIPOC and kinky people in New York. www.lourdesdfollins.com

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