In just a few short weeks, hundreds of thousands of renters across the country could find themselves facing eviction when the Centers for Disease Control’s 2020 federal eviction moratorium expires on Oct. 3. With little hope that the recently extended expiration date would be pushed forward again, housing insecure people across the country are bracing themselves for what might come next—and some populations are more vulnerable to eviction than others.
Unemployed youth and young adults are significantly more likely to face eviction. Young people disproportionately work in jobs that have been impacted by COVID-19, and their unemployment rates are 80% higher than adults 25 years old and older. With evictions looming and potentially unhoused families left with few options, currently and formerly houseless teens are speaking out to share their experiences, crowdsource, and offer resources.
The growing problem of unhoused youth
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 6.5 million residential households reported owing back rent since the beginning of 2020. Most states have hundreds of thousands of potential evictions paused on the court docket. In New York City, for instance, a majority of tenants are behind on their rent. While $47 billion was allocated toward the Emergency Rental Assistance program, a federal program that makes funding available to families that are unable to pay for rent or utilities, only $3 billion has been disbursed to date. Of the remaining $44 billion, less than 10% percent is currently slated to go toward tenant’s back-rent payments, or unhoused individuals who are waiting to move into a new rental home.
Most young people who are not living with their family aren’t even on the radar for federal or state-funded programs. New York’s recent pilot program, Trust Youth Initiative, currently offers monthly cash payments for about 40 unhoused youth for a time-limited, 24-month period. Funding support and awareness of youth-oriented housing programs like these is mixed, and oftentimes limited.
According to the University of Chicago Chapin Hall 2017 report, “Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America,” about one in 10 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 and at least one in 30 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17 experience some form of homelessness over the course of a 12-month period. Far too many people don’t give unhoused youth, ages 16-24, much of a thought when it comes to eviction prevention and permanent housing programs. For people who have experienced it, however, unhoused youth come to the front of their minds when they think about eviction.
Donald Whitehead Jr. remembers being a young, 21-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who was battling alcoholism. A few years later, still in his 20s, Whitehead had to deal with alcoholism, substance abuse issues, and a divorce, and couchsurfed from place to place. The current executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless eventually hit rock bottom and found himself living on the streets. While Whitehead has been sober and working in the social services industry for more than 20 years, he will never forget how quickly he lost everything and became unhoused. In his capacity at the National Coalition for the Homeless, he works on eviction prevention and advocacy relating to funding housing.
“This is the longest period of continued homelessness. Mass evictions would be catastrophic. We need housing now,” he said, noting his organization has been in communication with the U.S. Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge.
Utilizing social media
Since it’s not easy for all young people to find jobs due to their age, crowdsourcing on social media is sometimes the best available option. While teens have been crowdsourcing online for years, research shows that unhoused youth who have access to cell phones and internet-smart devices have clear advantages in the ability to access medical and mental health services.
In July, a Rialto, California-based teenager went viral on TikTok and Youtube after opening up about living with his mother in the family car. The teen, who identifies as “Zeemer” online, now has 1.9 million TikTok followers and has racked up over 25 million collective likes on TikTok for his “How I cook as a homeless teenager” content. According to information posted on his social media accounts, both Zeemer and his mother currently have part-time employment, but not enough money for permanent, stable housing.
Zeemer is one of many youth who have crowdsourced funding for food, toiletries, and other necessities while managing homelessness during the pandemic.
Whether it’s unhoused communities like the West Oakland Wood Street housing unsanctioned encampment or 30-something trans activist Kayla Gore’s housing initiatives in Memphis, Tennessee, unhoused youth who use social media platforms and websites like TikTok, Instagram, or GoFundMe have transformed how homeless and housing insecure youth communicate, share resources, and raise or earn money online. Federal government funding is available, but often has lots of red tape and delays in the allocation process, depending on the tenant’s eligibility.
“When youth utilize platforms to gain resources to live, they are doing their best to survive, be resilient, and use their smarts to live life,” said Jevon Wilkes, executive director of the California Coalition for Youth and director for Youth Engagement with the California Children’s Trust. Last year, the California Coalition for Youth’s crisis hotline responded to over 17,000 calls, online chats, and texts from California youth in need.
“Youth need to access free internet to connect to important relationships in their lives and in case of an emergency or crisis,” Wilkes said. “How do they call for help when they have no service?”
Kate Barnhart, the founder and director of New Alternatives for LGBT Youth, a New York-based nonprofit that assists unhoused LGBTQ+ young people, said that while some people might be confused by unhoused people having or using cell phones, it’s actually extremely common.
“There are many ways homeless young people get phones,” Barnhart said. “Sometimes there are parents or guardians who are paying for phones, or a romantic partner. You might have free phones through social services. You might have someone who prioritizes having the phone on with the little money they have.”
Barnhart said that people shouldn’t be surprised that homeless youth need phones or devices, as many see phones as a lifeline. Along with coordinating or referring clients for COVID-19 vaccines and/or testing for youth, Barnhart adds, many youth are “individuals [who] have immediate mental health needs.”
The pandemic and short-term refugee and immigration-related housing programs will have years of ramifications. Many critics may contend that unhoused youth are lazy or choose homelessness as a lifestyle. Some will tell teens and youth to “get a job,” but that’s easier said than done. The fact is some teens and youth and other unhoused individuals often already have traditional jobs, or sometimes two jobs. What they don’t have, quite simply, are homes.