By Alison Brauner, Student, Advocate and Volunteer/Intern at the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.
When young people speak, Senators and State Representatives listen. There are hundreds of people who work in the Boston State House, and hundreds of people who walk in and out of that large maze of a building every day. In the midst of our busy lives, it can be hard to imagine taking time to go to the State House, sit in a Representative’s office, and discuss the issues that are concerning us, but this is such an important part of our role as voters and citizens. Advocates, like the staff at the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, are no stranger to the State House, and they know firsthand what will, and what will not, bend a legislator’s ear. As a part of the “Accompany the Youth” campaign, an effort to pass House Bill 135, which will provide housing and supportive services for young people experiencing homelessness without the care of a parent or legal guardian, we have taken time out of Senators’ and Representatives’ days and asked them to listen to young people discuss the trials they’ve faced as unaccompanied homeless youth. When young people speak, law-makers listen.
The first step when addressing a law-maker about the plight of the unaccompanied youth is to obliterate the stigma behind youth homelessness. While the stigma behind homelessness in general is not at all representative of the reality of thousands of people struggling to make ends meet, it is even more untrue for people under the age of 24. The reasons that young people face homelessness are entirely different from those of adults. Because of this, most emergency shelters are unsafe and inappropriate for people under 25, and many unaccompanied youth feel safer sleeping on the street than in these shelters. Very few shelters accept anyone under the age of 18.
Contrary to popular belief, young people who face homelessness are not “just lazy,” or unwilling to “take responsibility” for their life and “just find a job.” In fact, a large number of unaccompanied youth have jobs, but generally speaking these jobs only pay minimum wage. In the State of Massachusetts, a person earning minimum wage has to work about 110 hours a week just to afford rent, never mind food, clothes, transportation, medical bills, heat, electricity, water, or gas. To put that in perspective, this means that a person would have to work, at minimum, 15 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, just a afford rent. This makes going to school an absolute impossibility.
Three leading causes of youth homelessness are domestic violence, sexual abuse, and LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer or Questioning) related issues. People as young as middle-school age face this difficult choice: to stay in an abusive home, or try their luck in the street. A disproportionately large percentage of unaccompanied youth identity as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer or Questioning; after coming out to a relative or guardian, they are forced to leave home, either because their guardian insists they do so, or because the harassment or abuse they face in the aftermath is unbearable. A young person living on the street faces starvation, exposure to the elements, racial or gender-related prejudice, violence, sexual assault and exploitation, even death. At the Bill Hearing for House Bill 135 in the summer of 2013, Dr. Alice Colegrove testified that youth who experience homelessness are ten times more likely to die than their housed peers. Many unaccompanied youth find themselves involved in risky behavior as a means of survival. For example, a young person may trade sexual favors in exchange for a place to sleep, or for food. This dramatically increases their risk of contracting sexually transmitted illnesses, sexual abusive, physical violence, and sexual exploitation. To be clear, it is homelessness that dramatically increases their risk of danger, harm, and illness, not simply their behavior. We understand that these behaviors are not simply a result of reckless irresponsibility, but rather a last resort to which our young people have had to resort because we lack the supportive services they so desperately need.
We, as advocates, know all of this not by mere speculation, but because brave young people have come forward and shared their story with us, and with their legislators. Though our work is important, a young person is their own best advocate. A young person is also the best advocate for other young people. It’s all well and good for an adult, a professional with a fancy degree or an office at a local non-profit to say to a Senator, “These kids aren’t just lazy! Pass House Bill 135!” But when a young person sits in front of this Senator and tells their story, blows the doors off the stigma for themselves, and lays out the truth before this law-maker in an unmovable and undisputable fashion, the legislator listens.
I witnessed the power of youth advocacy last summer, sitting in a legislator’s office with three brave young people who were facing homelessness themselves. One young woman spoke about her flight from an abusive home, and how it led her to the street. Another young man discussed how his homophobic family threw him out on the street after he admitted to his parents that he was gay. The third young man told the Senator about his struggle with unemployment as a recent graduate of a reputable university in the Midwest. Though all three were eloquent, brutally honest, and powerful, I would like to share just a few details from the last young man’s testimony, to show just how unfair the “lazy” stereotype for homeless youth really is.
Before graduating, this young man landed an internship with a business in Boston that was going to pay him a small sum, and provide him with room and board. After moving out to Boston with no money to his name, the company unexpectedly laid off more than a thousand employees all at once, and canceled his internship, and he lost his apartment. Finding a job as a recent college graduate is difficult. Finding a job a young person experiencing homelessness is nearly impossible.
He, and many like him, began looking for work in the food industry, at coffee shops or as dishwashers. Unable to list a permanent address on his applications, he often couldn’t even get an interview. Those places which did interview and hire him quickly caught on to his living situation for two reasons. The first, and most obvious, was his backpack. People saw him caring around an enormous backpack filled with all his worldly possessions, such as a tooth brush, extra clothes, and they got suspicious. Secondly, he wasn’t able to bathe of clean up regularly because he didn’t have a safe place to stay. Collectively, this meant that the few jobs he was able to hold for a short while didn’t last very long. Even though these employers knew they’d hired a responsible and well-educated young man, the stigma behind homelessness made them uneasy. The young man believes that the employers thought he must be addicted to drugs, or worried he might steal from the business, which were both absolutely untrue. Without a job, he couldn’t get a place to live, but without a place to live, he wasn’t able to find, much less keep, a job. It’s a vicious cycle.
If this young man had a place to sleep, bathe, and store his belongings, his search for employment would be so much easier, and probably end with success. Watching him explain this to the representative, who listened with unwavering attention, I saw the representative’s demeanor change. While he had been polite from the beginning, the awe, respect, and disbelief, both of their courage and of their struggle, was evident. No longer was this senator misinformed about the causes of youth homelessness, or the daily experiences of the unaccompanied youth. Over the course of half an hour, this senator became an advocate for unaccompanied youth, all because three brave individuals became advocates for themselves.
Without the involvement of young people in the legislative process, specifically as advocates for themselves and each other, the fight for housing and supportive services can’t be won. Advocates at the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless can only do so much when working with senators and law-makers. We need young people to be involved and share their stories, give their testimonies, and be a part of campaign to pass House Bill 135. The best thing a young person can do for themselves is become their own advocate. Until legislation is passed at the state level, the housing and services that the unaccompanied youth so desperately need won’t be made available.
Help make Massachusetts the first state to end youth homelessness. If you have a testimony you’d like to share, or if you know someone who might make a good advocate, let us know! Contact Exa at the Coalition at
or Kelly Turley at
to share your story and get involved.
The voice of an advocate is immeasurably powerful, but a youth facing homelessness who advocates for him or herself is positively unstoppable.
When young people speak, legislators listen.