Homelessness is a growing epidemic in the city of Milwaukee, especially for our children. Local groups including Public Allies, Path Finders and Walkers Point are joining for the Youth Homelessness Forum next month. The intent of this forum is to bring service providers, youth, and other stakeholders together and discuss what impact they can make on this serious issue.
A recent report published by the state’s Department of Housing found that of the over 6600 homeless people living in Milwaukee County, nearly 1800 are children. Children are running away from home or cast out because of violence or substance abuse at home, sexual assault, rejection from their families based on their gender identity or orientation, or simply because their families cannot afford to support them. Between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youth identify as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender or Questioning (GLBTQ). A study published by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that 46 percent of runaway and homeless youth reported being physically abused, 38 percent reported being emotionally abused, and 17 percent reported being forced into unwanted sexual activity by a family or household member.
The increased risks to youth who are homeless are overwhelming. They have a greater risk of severe anxiety and depression, suicide, poor health and nutrition, and low self-esteem. Additionally, they face an increased likelihood of exchanging sex for food, clothing and shelter (also known as “survival sex”) or dealing drugs to meet basic needs. 75 percent of homeless youth have or will drop out of school.
Resources for homeless youth in Milwaukee are severely lacking, especially for those between the ages of 13 and 18. Joseph Stanley of Pathfinders points to a lack of available beds for homeless youth in shelters (only 16 emergency beds in the whole city) and a faulty foster care system as examples. Amy O’Neil of Walker’s Point Youth and Family Center echoes the sentiment, adding that lack of funding for service programs and community awareness are contributing factors.
Even with sparse resources available to homeless youth, they often face additional barriers in accessing them. Stanley gets to the heart of the issue by saying, “It’s biased towards the adult system when we talk about youth homelessness, because youth aren’t supposed to be homeless, right? I think there’s a blaming of the victim when they just need access to resources. That’s the problem with racism, sexism, and so forth; we deny access to resources to groups of people, which is true for the youth that we work with. A lot of them have chronic mental health issues and they’re stigmatized and they’re blamed. Often they’re incarcerated and they need access to resources.”
When asked what needs to change in Milwaukee to address youth homelessness, Claudine O’Leary, a consultant and youth worker for over 20 years, responded, “When people think about change, so many of these services are focused on you, as a young person, need to make that change, you as a young person need to make better decisions, better choices how are you going to make a different decision? To me, I feel we need to consistently pull the question back and say how can our systems respond differently? How can our ground people respond differently? Young people are sending us loud and clear messages, with their actions, and to be honest, with their words, if you actually bothered to listen to them.” She goes on to say that a change needs to occur both in the way that law enforcement handles missing person cases and community accountability, specifically the community’s tolerance for allowing adults to coerce homeless and runaway youth into sexual and substance abuse.
Fortunately, organizations such as Pathfinders and Walker’s Point Youth and Family Center have recognized the need to address the gap in services for homeless youth and have initiated programs including Street Beat, Milwaukee’s only homeless youth focused street outreach program, prevention education programs, and Q-Blok, a shelter for LGBTQ youth.
In order for the issue of youth homelessness to be fully addressed, more community members need to become involved. The forum on youth homelessness will be held June 14th from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at the Milwaukee School of Continuing Education at 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. Suite 7000. This event is free and open to the public. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.