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Why Youth? Part Two: Under 25 and On Their Own

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

Think of who you were at eighteen.

Was that person ready for the challenges of adulthood? If you stumbled, did you have someone reliable to fall back upon?

Were you really, truly, independent?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you were fortunate. You may not have seen it at the time but independent living skills and loyal support from others are precious assets at that age. These are gifts the typical kid at Stepping Stones did not possess when they turned eighteen, even though that’s how old many of them were when they started living on their own. Running away from abusive situations. Aging out of foster care. Being “thrown out” by parents. Such events are so common at Stepping Stones that you’d be hard pressed to enter a room here where someone does not have one of these backstories.

At Stepping Stones we serve youth twenty-five and under, because the needs of young people experiencing homelessness are different from the larger population of homeless adults. Besides a history of trauma, there are other common themes that are fairly unique to young people experiencing homelessness. For one thing, homeless youth view shelters differently than the general population. In fact, most of them fear shelters because of the presence of older adults, citing anxieties about sexual harassment and drug solicition. Just as youth succeed best when there are drop-in centers specifically for their age group, they also need youth-specific shelters. That’s why we are hard at work developing a housing program for youth at Stepping Stones.

Like many young people, homeless youth are particularly self-conscious of stigma. As one youth, Ashton put it, “We don’t ask for help even when we need it, because we don’t want to be made fun of for it.” Ashton is one of the many young adults who grew up in foster care and found himself on his own at eighteen. When asked about some of the struggles he and his peers at Stepping Stones go through he said, “Most of us were in placement at some point. None of us know anything about 'adulting' until another adult steps in, and by that point we’re already struggling.” He went on to say that he feels that he learned the wrong things growing up. “We don’t know enough–we weren’t set up correctly. I’ve had 3 jobs and I still have no idea how to do taxes.”

While many older homeless adults once had a place of their own, homeless youth usually have never been responsible for maintaining their own home. Until just last week, Nicole was homeless. She now has housing, but the challenge does not end there for her; this is a major learning experience for Nicole because this apartment that she just got through her hard work at Stepping Stones is the very first fixed address that she has ever lived in. Ever.

You see, Nicole grew up in a combination of hotel rooms, group homes, and homeless shelters. Her parents never had a home to raise her in, and now for the first time she is going through the motions of managing bills and keeping her space tidy. That can be a lot for any 20 year old, especially for one who has never even seen it modeled before. For youth like Nicole, getting housing is only one major hurdle; the next concern is keeping it.

Youth who endured childhoods disrupted by trauma and upheaval missed a few life skills that many of us take for granted. When they first come to Stepping Stones, many do not know how to work a washing machine or to work a stove; one young man was never allowed to be in the kitchen as a child, so the first thing he learned at Stepping Stones was how to make Mac n’ Cheese. Others struggle with hygiene or the executive functioning that is necessary to keep their own schedule, jeopardizing job prospects. Living on their own without these soft skills can have lasting consequences. Though there are many barriers for homeless youth to get housing, one of the most damaging is having an eviction on their record.

Though there are a lot of good reasons why changemakers push the idea of “housing first” for the general population of homeless individuals, that thinking can seem a little shortsighted in certain cases. Sometimes it is more important for a person to address their mental health first, or to learn the essential skills that make it easier for them to maintain their situation. This is particularly important to consider when it comes to youth.

When someone has resources and connections, mistakes are more like test-runs, simulations they learn from. “Trial and error” is the mantra by which we learn how to be adults, but to be homeless and alone at such a young age demands only successful trials and absolutely no errors. At Stepping Stones, we make sure that every homeless youth has as many opportunities as possible; with the support of our team, they restore a privilege that many of their peers enjoy: the freedom to stumble and know that they have a helping hand to get back up on their feet.

Stay tuned for Part Three of Why Youth? for more on how Stepping Stones serves the unique needs of homeless youth. If you want to catch up on Part One of the series, read about why our volunteers chose to work with youth at Stepping Stones.

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