Bridging the Gap for Disconnected Youth

The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced on Dec. 18 a new initiative for addressing homeless young adults ages 18-24, usually referred to as “transition-age youth.” According to the NY Times, the Obama administration is focusing on this new and growing homeless population. While the recession hit all age groups, young adults were particularly hard hit with unemployment.

A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a U.S. think tank focused on youth issues, painted a pretty depressing picture for youth who are not in school or working. The policy report “Youth and Work, Restoring Teen and Young Adult Connections to Opportunity” found that employment among ages 16 to 24 was the lowest since World War II.  In California, only 18 percent of ages 16-19 are currently employed. For ages 20-24, 56 percent are employed.  Nationally, of the 6.5 million teens and young adults out of school and work, 21 percent are parents who also take care of their children. 

The Annie E. Casey Foundation points out that “forty years ago, a teenager leaving high school—with or without a diploma—could find a job in a local factory. Twenty years ago … young people could still gain a foothold in the workforce through neighborhood stores and restaurants. Amid the housing boom of the past decade, youth with some training could find a career track in the construction field. But today—with millions of jobs lost and experienced workers scrambling for every available position—America’s young people stand last in line for jobs.” 

The report describes these youth as “disconnected” and provides some grim statistics on the high cost of supporting young adults who are not reconnected later in life. Although youth have a higher unemployment rate today than in past decades, the good news is that more of them are staying in school. According to a study based out of Northeastern University, the enrollment rates for teens in high school has increased from 79 percent in 2000 to 85 percent in 2011. However, if these young people don’t get the early experience of working, many won’t develop the skills to obtain and keep a job later in life. The report urges communities to develop strategies to reconnect youth.

The main recommendation in the report is an obvious one: create multiple pathways to success. Not every kid is on track to go to a four-year college. Some kids drop out of high school, others just aren’t interested in the college-track curriculum that is now required in most school districts. Youth need to be able to train and build skills for trades. They need help navigating the various options. For kids who have become “disconnected,” we need to support them to get back on track.

Bill Wilson Center has been working with disconnected and homeless youth for more than 20 years. What we have learned is it’s best to get homeless youth in transitional housing first and then begin connecting youth with employment opportunities. After they have been successful in keeping and maintaining employment, we then work on maintaining household budgets and add educational goals. 

Last year, 100 percent of the foster youth (ages 16-17) who entered our Transitional Housing Placement Program graduated from high school before moving on to either independent living or the Transitional Housing Program for older youth.  Last year, 80 percent of the emancipated foster youth (ages 18-22) who left our Transitional Housing Program maintained permanent housing and employment. This included youth with mental health issues and prior substance abuse problems.

It is great to see the Obama administration and notable researchers like the Annie E. Casey Foundation take an interest in young adults who are caught in the middle of being a kid and becoming an independent adult. Without resources, many of these disconnected youth will become tomorrow’s chronic homeless adult street population.

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.

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