We see them all around town - at De la Guerra Plaza, the harbor, even in some of those old vans parked on the side of the road. With tired, grubby faces, they stand apart from their legitimately housed peers. They are homeless youth - not the grizzled veterans of the streets we see on interstate off ramps, but people who are, were recently, or should still be in high school.
In July of this year, Congressman Jim McDermott (D-Washington) pushed forward legislation to make November National Homeless Youth Awareness Month. Begun by a public relations campaign by Virgin Mobile - including testimony before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee by singer/songwriter Jewel, who spent a year living in a van - the law aims to bring the needs of the increasing number of homeless youths, which is now some 1.25 million, to the forefront of American dialogue.
Whether they know it or not, the homeless youth of Santa Barbara have different organizations they can seek out for support. The list includes programs offered by the city’s Community Development and Human Services Committee, the Community Kitchen of Santa Barbara, Direct Relief International, Noah’s Anchorage, and Transition House. All of them offer services ranging from meals to personal care product distribution to housing. The most well-known adult shelters in town are Casa Esperanza, the Rescue Mission, and the Salvation Army, but programs like Noah’s Anchorage and Transition House focus more on homeless young people and their families.
“In Santa Barbara, the idea of homeless youth is often overlooked because it’s not that obvious,” said Jackie Grant, an outreach coordinator for Noah’s Anchorage. “People have seen homeless adults, but youth who experience homelessness aren’t necessarily sitting out on State Street in the public eye, but they need access to resources as well.”
Noah’s Anchorage, an affiliate of the Channel Islands YMCA, offers a few different programs specifically targeted at youth. One is a shelter program that houses up to eight youth at a time. They also have a street outreach program to let the youths know what resources are available to them, and a transitional program that helps kids who are transitioning out of the foster care system. However, Grant said that even if they run out of room, they work to find young people the lodging and support they need to stay safe.
Last year, Grant worked with more than 400 youth in Santa Barbara. She said that each case is unique, but that many youths experience homelessness with their families while others are runaways. The variety of circumstances that cause a young person to run away are varied, but can include abuse and emotional problems, among other things. She said that the staff at Noah’s Anchorage puts a lot of effort into finding out the factors that caused them to run away from home, but that their number one priority is to put them in a safe living situation.
“Youth who are homeless are more vulnerable to a lot of things,” she said. “Drugs, sex abuse, and being taken advantage of are all risks.” A 2002 report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported an estimated 40,000 runaways who were at risk of sexual endangerment or exploitation in just one year. Furthermore there are problems gaining access to healthcare.
“This is the first time this issue is being raised nationally,” Grant said, “so we’re starting to say that this isn’t okay and that we need to examine getting youths the services they need.” She pointed out that for those of us who have the advantage of a predictable place to go every evening, recognizing the fact that having no stable place to call home is a difficult way to stay on top of other goals people have, such as school or work.
Said Grant, “One of the great things about Santa Barbara is that there is a lot of cooperation between non-profits and social service organizations to make sure that youths, families, and individuals are getting the best and most appropriate services for their needs.”
For more information on National Homeless Youth Awareness, visit web.virginmobileusa.com/life/regeneration-nhyam. For information about Santa Barbara resources available to homeless youth, visit volunteermatch.org/bymsa/m7480/c3/org1.html.