No child in Tarrant County should be without a home. Sadly, too many children and youth in our area will be homeless during this school year with their families or, worse, by themselves.
The issue affects many of our community’s systems. For example, Tarrant County schools reported nearly 1,000 students unaccompanied by an adult or guardian in their classrooms during the 2015-16 school year. In the past year, ACH Child and Family Services provided shelter for 133 youths under age 18, and provided outreach services to 210 runaway and homeless youth between the ages of 14 and 20. When the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition (TCHC) conducted its annual “point-in-time” survey on January 26, 2017, volunteers documented 100 youths between the ages of 18 and 24 sleeping on the streets or in shelters and two who had found transitional housing.
There are multiple reasons for homelessness among this young and vulnerable population. The largest number of children and youth choose homelessness over physical, mental or sexual abuse — including trafficking. Many youth who age out of the foster care system at 18 find themselves without a place to live. A growing number of our homeless youth have been rejected by their parents and families due to their gender identity. And some are ready to re-enter society after paying for bad decisions in jail but have nowhere to go.
The consequences of youth homelessness are devastating. These youths are more likely to have mental health and substance-use problems with no access to treatment. They often commit crimes to survive, with many prostituting themselves or selling drugs. More than one-third report engaging in “survival sex” in exchange for food, shelter or drugs. The median age of first sexual experience among homeless youth is 13. As a result of these survival techniques, homeless youth are also more likely to become pregnant or contract HIV and other sexually transmitted illnesses.
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Tarrant County has been working for several years to help its homeless population, but more must be done — especially for children and youth who are on their own in our community.
TCHC is joining with ACH Child and Family Services, MHMR Paving the Way and CitySquare to focus more attention on youth homelessness, including ways to address it. On Oct. 26 at 7 p.m., these organizations will present “Lost in America,” a film that focuses on homeless youth from across the country. Following the film, director Rotimi Rainwater — who was homeless as a youth himself — will be on hand for a community conversation on the experiences of homeless youth. It will be an opportunity to begin finding solutions in Tarrant County. The film and community conversation will be presented at Ridglea Theater, 6025 Camp Bowie Boulevard. Tickets are available for $25 ($15 for students) at lostinamericatc.eventbrite.com. Proceeds from the ticket sales will benefit a TCHC fund dedicated to helping homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 24 make the transition to a real home.
This is an important documentary for our community to see and an important conversation for us to have. The very real story of youth homelessness stays in the shadows. It is time to shine a light on it and take steps to end it in Tarrant County.
Otis Thornton has been the executive director of Tarrant County Homeless Coalition since 2015. He has dedicated his career to serving those experiencing homelessness and knows that our community has what it takes to accomplish big things, including ending homelessness. Established by community leaders in 1989, TCHC workswith community partners to lead, coordinate and develop strategies and resources to end homelessness.