Marquan Ellis was evicted from his home in Las Vegas, Nevada when he was 18.
His mother battled with a drug and gambling addiction while he stayed at his godmother's house. But he couldn't stay there forever.
He found his way to the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth where he enrolled in the independent living program.
He isn't sure what he would have done if he hadn't found that program: "I would have been on the street looking for someone to help, looking for my next meal, looking for my next shower, looking for my next place to sleep."
Like Ellis, some 4.2 million young people experience unaccompanied homelessness in the course of a year, according to a new study from Chapin Hall a research center at the University of Chicago.
One in 30 teens experience some type of homelessness and it's more common the older you get: one in 10 for young people aged 18 to 25. The study also found that African American youth are 82 percent more likely to experience homelessness.
Marquan was one of those young black men in Nevada, which has the highest rate of unsheltered youth in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This refers to people sleeping on the streets, in cars or in parks. Cities like San Francisco, Las Vegas and San Jose had high rates of unaccompanied youth that were unsheltered.
Young people often end up homeless because of family breakdown, abuse or abandonment and it's a problem that isn't properly addressed, says Arash Ghafoori, the executive director of the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth.
"We really need to dial back and focus more on prevention," he says. "There's certain subsets of homeless youth that really require culturally sensitive and specifically tailored services."
The LGBTQ community is one of those communities; they are 120 percent more likely to experience youth homelessness than other people, according to the new report.
This population is often hidden, and this new study is a rare look at the scope of the problem; other takeaways include that these young adults often don't show up for school, or frequently switch between schools. As a result, many don't have high school diplomas.
"This is a stage in which young people are developing experiences and skills that will stay with them throughout their lives," says Matthew Morton, a research fellow at Chapin Hall and the lead researcher on the report. "Every day of homelessness is a missed opportunity to support their healthy development and also their capacity to contribute to stronger communities and local economies."
Schools are uniquely positioned to reach these populations — and some of the biggest school districts in the country are facing this problem too. In New York, new data showed that 110,000 students had no permanent place to sleep at night. The number is double what it was a decade ago.
The same goes for Texas where there are more than 113,000 000 homeless students and about 16,800 of those kids were unaccompanied by a legal guardian. Just this week, Texas Appleseed, a public service law center based in Austin, released a report summarizing nearly 100 interviews with young people who had experienced or were experiencing homelessness in Texas.
"Schools are at the front line of this issue to make sure all kids needs are met," says Jeanne Stamp, the director of the Texas Homeless Education Office, a state program funded by the federal law that protects homeless youth. She trains homeless liaisons in Texas school districts that ensure homeless students have transportation, uniforms or school supplies, and they work to connect families to community resources such as food pantries.
It's important for schools to be the one stable place for kids, where they can keep their friends and teachers, Stamp says.
"Children who move around a lot or live in poverty tend to not do well academically," she says. "That instability really undermines their ability to learn."
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Four-point-two million young people experience homelessness in the course of a year. That number comes from a study that's out today from a research center at the University of Chicago. Advocates say it's the first study that attempts to get a true picture of a growing and mostly hidden epidemic. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: One in 30 teens experiences some type of homelessness in 12 months, and it rises sharply for young adults, 1 in 10 for people between 18 and 25, people like 21-year-old Marquan Ellis in Las Vegas.
MARQUAN ELLIS: Once I finished high school, everything just kind of crashed. It came all to a head.
FADEL: Nevada has the highest rate of unsheltered youth in the country and the fourth-largest youth homelessness population, and Ellis was briefly one of them. At 18, his mother was in the throes of a drug and gambling addiction. They were evicted and couch surfing, and it felt unsafe. So he started sleeping where he could on his own. His last spot was his godmother's, but she was moving.
ELLIS: She woke me up, like, two days before she left and was like, look; I really don't want to see you out here on the streets, but I'm about to leave, so you've got to find you somewhere to go.
FADEL: At 19, he didn't know where to turn. He borrowed his godmother's phone.
ELLIS: And I just typed in anything random. I typed in, Las Vegas youth place. I just typed in something on Google. (Laughter) Like, it was the most randomest (ph) things.
FADEL: And the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth popped up. He was lucky. He got into their independent living program. He hid his troubles. That's what teens do, says Arash Ghafoori, the executive director of the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth.
ARASH GHAFOORI: They're trying their hardest not to be seen by anyone because they don't want to be abused. They don't want to be ostracized. They don't want to be stigmatized.
This is our sort of clothing pantry, our laundry facility.
FADEL: He shows me around the drop-in center designed to feel like home. Teens play music, do laundry, eat, get online and lounge. Nevada has such a high unsheltered youth population, Ghafoori says, in part because there aren't enough shelters. But it's also easy to hide in Las Vegas.
GHAFOORI: Because we have a 24/7 city, youth can more easily blend in and stay invisible here as opposed to other communities.
FADEL: And Ghafoori says because the issues are so hidden and so different than adult homelessness - young people are typically thrust into homelessness because of family breakdown, abuse, or abandonment - it isn't properly addressed. Advocates for homeless young people say they were anxious for a report like this because there is so little reliable data that shows the scope and nuance of the problem. And now they hope the data will help them persuade donors and local and national policymakers to take action.
GHAFOORI: We really need to dial back and be focused more on prevention. There are certain subsets of homeless youth that really require culturally sensitive and specifically tailored services.
FADEL: Like members of the LGBTQ community. They're 120 percent more likely to be homeless. African-American and Hispanic youth experience homelessness more often, and young people without a high school degree and single parents are the most vulnerable. And this isn't just an urban thing. Young people in rural parts of the country experience homelessness at a similar rate. Matthew Morton is the lead researcher on the report from the policy center Chapin Hall.
MATTHEW MORTON: Youth and young adulthood represent a critical developmental window in our lives, and every day of homelessness is a missed opportunity to support their healthy development and also their capacity to contribute to stronger communities and local economies.
FADEL: He says the need for prevention is urgent, and they'll take their findings to legislators. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Las Vegas.
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