To Be Young and Homeless

CALIFORNIA HAS THE LARGEST POPULATION IN THE COUNTRY OF HOMELESS YOUTH. The most under the age of 18, and the most between the ages of 18 and 24 (according to a 2013 census taken by the Department of Housing and Urban Development). Combined, there were 15,749 counted in a single night—79% of whom were “unsheltered”: sleeping outdoors.

The census numbers from that sample night are already staggering, but pinpointing the true number of homeless youth is nearly impossible. For one thing, young people all look homeless, refusing to get off our lawns no matter how hard we shake our canes and throw our dentures at them (sorry, I have no concept of appropriate timing). In seriousness, many young people without homes blend in better than their older, more advanced counterparts. Many float around, couch-surfing for weeks or months at a time, sometimes sleeping in their cars, getting on their feet for a little while only to be nudged past the tipping point into homelessness again… Homelessness can be an intermittent state, and it comes with a heavy stigma. Many young people would rather hide the fact that they’re struggling or use euphemisms to describe their situation. The best estimates by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (part of the US Department of Justice) have been set at around 1.6-1.7 million nationwide, which is only counting those under 18.

But 18 is not a magic number. Most of us have been 18: still basically kids, still in high school, emotionally volatile, unprepared for the vast sea of responsibilities involved in living as adults. Some of us had guides—family and teachers and friends—who helped us figure out how to get into college or apply for jobs or find apartments, cosigned on loans, helped us file taxes, taught us how to do laundry and cook… maybe more importantly than anything, we had people who expected a lot of us and provided that safety-net of esteem: we could do it, they knew we could. Imagine having none of that.

How to Become a Homeless Youth

“Causes of homelessness among youth fall into three interrelated categories: family problems, economic problems, and residential instability.

Many homeless youth leave home after years of physical and sexual abuse, strained relationships, addiction of a family member, and parental neglect. Disruptive family conditions are the principal reason that young people leave home: in one study, more than half of the youth interviewed during shelter stays reported that their parents either told them to leave or knew they were leaving and did not care (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1995). In another study, 46% of runaway and homeless youth had been physically abused and 17% were forced into unwanted sexual activity by a family or household member (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1997).

Some youth may become homeless when their families suffer financial crises resulting from lack of affordable housing, limited employment opportunities, insufficient wages, no medical insurance, or inadequate welfare benefits. These youth become homeless with their families, but are later separated from them by shelter, transitional housing, or child welfare policies (Shinn and Weitzman, 1996).

Residential instability also contributes to homelessness among youth. A history of foster care correlates with becoming homeless at an earlier age and remaining homeless for a longer period of time (Roman and Wolfe, 1995). Some youth living in residential or institutional placements become homeless upon discharge—they are too old for foster care but are discharged with no housing or income support (Robertson, 1996). One national study reported that more than one in five youth who arrived at shelters came directly from foster care, and that more than one in four had been in foster care in the previous year (National Association of Social Workers, 1992).”

Imagine, for example, that you’ve been living in the foster system… You’re more likely than most people to suffer from depression, and/or PTSD, and/or ADHD. The odds are also high that you’re a minority, or that you identify as LGBT. In so many ways you feel marginalized, disconnected. On top of the painful circumstances that landed you in the system, bad things have happened since you entered (a 2005 study of foster children in Oregon and Washington State found that nearly one in three reported being abused by a foster parent or another adult in a foster home). Unless you were lucky enough to get placed with really altruistic and generous foster parents, you’re treated as a commodity by people who answered an ad on craigslist to make some extra money. While a new state policy (AB 12) is gradually being implemented that will allow some foster children to apply to stay in the system until the age of 21, for most the official end of care comes on their 18th birthday. Let’s say you didn’t run away like one in seven kids between the ages of 10-18, despite all those pressures—if you’re like nearly half of all foster children, one way or another, by the time you turn 18 you’ve become homeless.

Being homeless and young presents many challenges:

“Few homeless youth are housed in emergency shelters as a result of lack of shelter beds for youth, shelter admission policies, and a preference for greater autonomy (Robertson, 1996). Because of their age, homeless youth have few legal means by which they can earn enough money to meet basic needs. Many homeless adolescents find that exchanging sex for food, clothing, and shelter is their only chance of survival on the streets. In turn, homeless youth are at a greater risk of contracting AIDS or HIV-related illnesses. Estimates for percentages of homeless youth infected with HIV are generally around 5%, but one study in San Francisco found that 17% of homeless youths were infected (Health Resources and Services Administration 2001). It has been suggested that the rate of HIV prevalence for homeless youth may be as much as 2 to 10 times higher than the rates reported for other samples of adolescents in the United States (National Network for Youth, 1998).

Homeless adolescents often suffer from severe anxiety and depression, poor health and nutrition, and low self-esteem. In one study, the rates of major depression, conduct disorder, and post-traumatic stress syndrome were found to be 3 times as high among runaway youth as among youth who have not run away (Robertson, 1989).

Homeless youth face difficulties attending school because of legal guardianship requirements, residency requirements, improper records, and lack of transportation. As a result, homeless youth face severe challenges in obtaining an education and supporting themselves emotionally and financially.”

However, it also presents a window of opportunity. If we ever want to break this cycle, break this chain of poverty and desocialization that passes down the generations, leading to so many other problems that affect our culture and drain our resources; if we want to catch people at the key moment when they’re old enough to stand on their own and young enough that they can avoid going too far down a bad path—this is the best chance.

What can anyone do?

For starters, there’s the 6th Street Center for Youth, located between Main and Broadway at 130 W. 6th St. The 6th Street Center serves people ages 14-24 who come in looking for help getting on their feet. They do what they can to fill basic needs, like offering showers, laundry facilities, food, clothing, hygiene supplies, haircuts. They offer mail, telephone, and computer services, and help in obtaining IDs and birth certificates. They also offer case management—people who can help with everything from getting enrolled in college and applying for financial aid, to counseling and health services.

Essentially, they offer that guidance and support that’s so necessary in bridging childhood and adulthood; connecting people at that most vital point in their lives with the available resources, information, and sense of worth we all require.

On their website,, you can find a list of their needs, things like personal hygiene items (think of everything you keep in your bathroom cabinets, they need all that stuff), school and household supplies, gift cards, clothing (especially new socks and underwear), art supplies, canned food, people to volunteer… things that make an immediate and tangible difference in the life of someone in our community, tipping the balance toward a future Chico with fewer homeless people and, most importantly, fewer people bitching about the homeless. (Donations are accepted M-F, 10am-5:30pm.)

In addition to personal donations and volunteer work, the Center can be helped by people who put together fundraisers on their behalf.

Which brings me to Molly…

If you haven’t heard the name Molly Roberts before, you’re one of the few. Molly is a petite, striking brunette; her thick hair cut at a dramatic angle. Her voice is distinctively rich and assured, and when she talks you get a sense that there won’t be a second of bullshit. On top of bartending at Duffy’s Tavern and pursuing a degree in natural science with aims at teaching disadvantaged youth, she spends her year in a constant cycle of event planning. Some of Chico’s biggest and most beloved events, like the Bike Races and the New Wave Prom, are a result of her hard work and talent for managing details. She’s planning a benefit show for this Friday the 30th, in partnership with the Chico Area Punks (formerly the local branch of the Pyrate Punx) and Greg Danielewicz of Monstros Pizza (Molly asks that we “please mention how generous he’s been opening up Monstros for this show.”), to raise money and clothing donations for 6th Street.

We sat down the other day to talk about why she’s throwing this fundraiser, and I left so inspired by her passion and perspective and stories of the work 6th Street does, I was subsequently sent down the rabbit hole researching youth homelessness, thinking about the turning points in my own life, and considering this:

What is it about punk rockers and giving a shit about the homeless?

It seems like so many fundraisers have an all-punk lineup. I suppose the draw of punk music is inherently related to giving a shit about political and social issues, being fed up with inequality. Members of the punk scene seem willing to see things the rest of us breeze past; see the good in people as individuals when the rest of us find it so easy to lump them together. But it goes beyond empathy and outrage—Molly made a joke about “when punks turn 30.” The scene is full of people committed to directly changing the things they can, making careers out of reforming the system.

For example, Josh Indar, singer/guitarist of Severance Package—described by Molly as a “solid rock ‘n’ roll punk band,” headlining this fundraiser—works for the Butte County Office of Education, and runs a program at 6th Street called “Writing for Donuts,” where clients of the Center are encouraged to express themselves creatively in exchange for delicious, creamy, flaky clouds of fat and sugar and DEAR GOD I WANT A DONUT.

Next on the lineup is Strange Ones—“a kind of surf-punk band”—made up of members of the Jefferson Crew. The Jefferson Crew, much like the Chico Area Punks, is a group of mutually supportive young people with strong ideals.

Then there’s two new bands: John Holmes—featuring Johnny Shanker (aka Johnny Meehan, who also happens to be a Case Manager at 6th Street) of the legendary Shankers and Michelin Embers, Puck James of Badger, and Jamie Lively from Baghdad Batteries, and then there’s The Miscreants—with Scribles [formerly of Synthesis], which, according to Molly, “is big, because I don’t think he’s played since he was with Gruk.”

“One thing that’s important is it’s $5 to get in and all proceeds go to 6th Street, but it’s $3 if you bring a NEW pack of underwear… or socks—we suggest people bring whatever would fit them so there’s a variety of sizes… Everyone deserves the sense of dignity from having their own clean socks and underwear, and I think that’s really important for these kids.”

There are a lot of quiet heroes in this story, people who make it their business to listen, to encourage, to gather resources and donate their time and talents. Among them is, of course, the center’s Program Manager Jennifer Barzey, as well as the staff, volunteers, and supporters from the community, and the kids themselves, who are brave enough to seek help and make something positive happen in their lives. Do what you can: go to a show, donate something, drop by and find out if you can drive someone to a job interview. The little things add up.

Check out the Dance your Pants Off Benefit for 6th Street, featuring Severance Package, Strange Ones, John Holmes, and The Miscreants—Friday January 30th, 8pm, Monstros Pizza. Bring $5 to get in, or $3 and a pack of new underwear or socks to donate.

You can also drop in at 6th Street on Wednesday January 28th from 3-5pm to hear music, poetry, storytelling and comedy from the Center’s youth.


Managing Editor for Synthesis Weekly. Amy likes to make clothes, plant flowers, and chase butterflies.