The Hidden Homeless: Exploring the Impact of Housing Inequality on Young Adults

By Mauriell Amechi

In March, Annie E. Casey Foundation released a report highlighting housing inequality, a disturbing yet pervasive issue impacting young people across America. In any given year, an estimated 3.5 million young adults ages 18 to 25 experience some form of homelessness — including sleeping in a car, on a couch (also known as couch surfing), and on the streets. Recent studies point to two significant predictors that place students at an elevated risk of homelessness: experience in the foster care system and a history of running away from home. 

According to national statistics, children from Black families are two to three times more likely to enter foster care than white youth, and are less likely to be adopted. Data also show that Black children and families are disproportionately represented at each stage or juncture in the system — mandatory reporting, investigation, removal, termination of parental rights, and out-of-home foster care placements. 

Upon turning 18, some youth disassociate entirely from the foster care system, having endured years of mistreatment, including physical, emotional, and psychological abuse. Through research focused on student experiences in higher education, I have encountered the narratives of many young adults grappling with “episodic homelessness,†a condition in which a person experiences periods of homelessness on and off, or has been homeless three or more times in the last year. 

Childhood trauma, challenging family dynamics, and weak relational ties increase risks of basic needs insecurity. A 2021 report by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that housing insecure youth and youth experiencing homelessness share common characteristics, including: 

  • Youth with less than a high school diploma or GED are nearly 3.5 times more likely to experience homelessness than peers who completed high school;
  • Hispanic, nonwhite youth have an increased susceptibility to homelessness than their non-Hispanic counterparts (33 percent);
  • Black youth are at an elevated risk for homelessness compared to other races (83%);
  • LGBTQ youth have a 120 percent greater risk of homelessness.

Studies have revealed the harmful effects of youth homelessness, which can severely impact health, safety and well-being, including:

  • Truancy or excessive school absences that may lead to dropping out and increased risk of involvement in deviant behavior;
  • Challenges with mental health, including suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts;
  • Drug or alcohol abuse;
  • Increased likelihood of becoming a victim of sexual assault, sex trafficking, and resorting to “survival crime,†including stealing or selling narcotics.

Student homelessness and housing insecurity have become trending topics in the higher  education sector. However, college leaders are still not mandated by federal or state law to track the prevalence of this issue on their campuses. Because many students experiencing housing insecurity may postpone their progress toward a college degree, it’s difficult for researchers to reliably track the size of the problem. To end the growing housing crisis faced by economically disadvantaged students, campus leaders and state policymakers should leverage the current interest in basic needs insecurity to create effective, community-based, affordable housing solutions.

Students who have experienced foster care are especially at risk of seeing their housing disrupted. As spring break and other college vacation periods approach, college students usually anticipate a well-deserved break from the academic rigors of campus life. But for young people aging out of foster care, the upcoming break may bring a sense of apprehension. Unlike some of their peers looking forward to vacations, community service trips or visiting family, young people aging out often have to make consequential decisions to secure stable housing between college breaks and upon graduation. 

Below I share recommendations to college leaders and state policymakers committed to redressing housing inequality, particularly among economically disadvantaged students.

Ronald Hallett and colleagues present a comprehensive model for implementing a trauma-informed approach to tracking students facing housing insecurity in their book, “Addressing Homelessness and Housing Insecurity in Higher Education.†College leaders should begin by building a team of individuals committed to addressing the housing crisis, especially those already involved in similar work. 

Nevertheless, the invisibility of homeless students or those experiencing housing insecurity may obscure the size of the problem and undermine targeted efforts to address it. Therefore, state government leaders should mandate publicly funded institutions to create effective protocols for identifying and tracking students with housing insecurity. This effort will require additional funding and resources. California and New Jersey governors have already demonstrated their commitment to addressing students’ basic needs insecurity by prioritizing it within state budgets. 

Policymakers, institutions, and communities must work together to provide support and resources to students to ensure they have a fair chance at academic and personal success. The need for affordable housing and basic security for college students is urgent, and we must continue raising awareness and advocating for systematic change.

The commentary above was originally published by Imprint News in April 2023

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