Representative Jim O’Day Pushes for More Support for Homeless Young People

On Tuesday July 16th, homeless youth gathered and presented heartrending testimony before the Joint Committee on Children Families and Persons with Disabilities, in the hopes that they will release House Bill 135 (An Act providing housing support and services to unaccompanied homeless youth) with a favorable report. The bill, filed by State Representative James O’Day (D-Worcester, West Boylston) and Senator Katherine Clark (D- Melrose) would define “unaccompanied homeless youth” as a person 24 years of age or younger who is not in the physical custody or care of a parent or legal guardian and who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, and would mandate the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to contract with organizations to provide housing and support services for the unaccompanied homeless youth population in urban, suburban, and rural areas across Massachusetts.

In 2012 a point-in-time survey on youth homelessness was conducted, in Worcester, by the Community Roundtable on Youth Homelessness, The Compass Project, and Clark University. Young people (between the ages of 13 and 25) were surveyed at city shelters, youth programs, outside of schools, in parks, and on the streets. The results were staggering and showed that out of 753 people surveyed, 120 (16%) identified as homeless. In addition to these 120, another 220 youths who were housed, reported that they had a friend who was homeless. The study defines homeless to include young people in shelters, staying with others temporarily (i.e. couch surfing), or on the streets. Kevin Lilly, a 21year old college senior, said he used to imagine homeless people as being the “ dirty, crazy, old man smelling of beer” but added “that is not the heartbreaking reality”. His perception started to change as he began to realize that some of the classmates he went to school with were homeless as well. Erica James, 17, has lived in 13 foster homes and 2 group homes in less than 3 years. She left her home upon telling her mother she was transgendered. “I have been shuffled around from home to home ever since,” James said, adding that she even lived on the streets for a period of time. According to advocates, about 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered.

There are far reaching effects of homelessness on this young population, unaccompanied homeless youth have alarmingly higher rates of drop out (75%) as well as higher rates of risk behaviors. 18% of the unaccompanied homeless youth population reported heroin use, compared to 1% of their housed peers, and a shocking 38% of these youth have reported having sexual contact against their will, compared to 10% of their peers. Homelessness often leads to poor health outcomes including increased risk of death, exposure to violence, and susceptibility to exploitation. Further problems arise when youth under the age of 18 have to rely on shelter and state services that mix them in with the adult population. While these teens and young adults are vulnerable to rape and violence when living on their own (and often leave their homes initially due to such violence), often times they become victims of such abuse again in the very shelters they seek help from.

“This population has a unique set of needs and barriers, and is unfortunately falling through the cracks, so to speak. The services our Commonwealth currently offers are not reaching them” said Representative O’Day who has been passionately working on this issue since early 2011. He is excited that this matter is receiving traction in the legislature- first, in FY13 a special commission was set up to specifically study and address the problem, and now with the passing on the FY14 budget there is money being allocated to conducting a comprehensive and statewide count and study on the issue of unaccompanied youth homelessness.

The goal of these efforts is to improve housing and residential stability, reduce the risk of harm and improve educational, physical and mental health outcomes for this population. Programs funded under this bill would provide a continuum of housing options for this population in conjunction with wraparound support services such as emergency shelter, “kinship” home placements, short term housing and “Transition to Independent Living” programs. These funded programs would aim to provide unaccompanied homeless youth with a stable out-of-home placement, and help to create educational and residential stability. Additional support services funded through these contracts may include individual, family and group counseling; access to medical, dental and mental health care; education and employment services; case management, advocacy and referral services; independent living skills training; and provisions of basic needs.

"We are so grateful to Representative O’Day for his leadership on unaccompanied youth homelessness issues,” said Kelly Turley, Director of Legislative Advocacy at the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. “We are committed to working with Representative O’Day, and a strong coalition of legislators, young people, advocates, and providers for the passage of this bill, which would provide critical housing and service resources for thousands of youth across Massachusetts who find themselves unaccompanied and without a safe, stable home. As the Massachusetts Special Commission on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth continues its important work, this bill would allow the Commonwealth to provide urgently-needed solutions to youth experiencing homelessness and will move us closer to our shared goal of ending unaccompanied youth homelessness."