Young and Homeless

We spent time with four different communities and asked them about their experiences. Here’s what we learned.

By Lauren Smiley
Photograph by Matt Mimiaga

In boomtown San Francisco, there’s little slack for kids still finding their way. Housing is crunched. Rents top New York’s. Today, roughly one in five homeless people is 25 or younger. The boom has even hit people helping these youth; in 2013, after 12 years of running a drop-in center in the Haight district, the Homeless Youth Alliance lost its lease (the space where it operated is now listed as renting for $9,000 a month). The nonprofit became homeless itself, resorting to offering roving services on the street.

The young and homeless are an especially vulnerable group. They’re more likely to be LGBTQ and more likely to sleep on the street than the general homeless population. In the 2015 Homeless Youth Count and Survey, 27 percent reported they had traded drugs and 20 percent had traded sex for a place to stay. Forty-three percent said they’d been assaulted.

The White House has set an ambitious goal to end youth and family homelessness by 2020. Here in San Francisco, lawmakers have committed new city funding. They are also in the process of working out legislation to open six “navigation centers” over the next two years. A pilot center, in the Mission, guides people into housing without the rigid rules that lead many people to avoid traditional shelters (no pets, no drinking, no partners). One of the new centers will likely be earmarked for youth, in the hopes of getting young people quickly off the streets.

We spent time with four different communities of homeless youth and asked them about their experiences. We also looked at some of the different ways people are trying to help. We heard a lot of tough stories, but also reasons for hope: For most young people, homelessness is not yet a chronic condition. Many describe it as a stop on the road to something else.