Nearly two-thirds of California counties have no services targeted toward the state's estimated 200,000 homeless youth, according to a state survey released yesterday.
The California Homeless Youth Project found only 53 programs in 20 counties offering services such as outreach and transitional housing for homeless children ages 12 to 17. Statewide there are just over 1,000 beds available for homeless youth.
The majority of homeless youth are not part of the foster care or juvenile justice systems and therefore lack state supports in those programs, the project found. Many say they end up on the street because of family conflict, abuse, neglect or rejection over sexual orientation. They are at greater risk for mental and physical health problems, sexual exploitation, physical abuse, substance abuse and death.
The project is a grant-funded research and policy initiative of the state research bureau, state library and New America Media, a national collaboration of ethnic news outlets and a California Watch partner. The programs it surveyed do not include those serving homeless families or adults, or current or former foster care youth.
Programs are clustered primarily in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego, with some services in Northern and Central California. Services are lacking or absent in the state's inland and rural regions – areas that are seeing spikes in youth homelessness, said Amy Lemley, policy director for the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes.
Lack of public transportation in the Central Valley and Inland Empire mean kids cannot reach services and often stay in unsafe living situations, Lemley said.
The findings were presented at the State Capitol, where Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Canada Flintridge, and Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, announced legislation aimed at helping homeless youth.
"Our state has no coordinated program to address their needs, leaving them invisible and underserved," Liu said at a press briefing.
One bill would create a state licensing category [PDF] for emergency youth shelters in order to maintain nearly $7 million in federal funding.
Currently the state licenses and regulates children's group homes – mandatory, long-term placements for youth in protective custody. Emergency youth shelters, which are voluntary and temporary, end up adopting inappropriate standards so they can meet licensing and funding requirements, advocates say.
Another bill would declare homeless youth a priority, special-needs population and would call on the California Emergency Management Agency – whose budget for homeless youth services is less than $500,000 – to develop a plan to reduce youth homelessness [PDF]. A third bill proposes an annual $2 billion investment in public-private partnerships that build affordable housing [PDF].
The Senate Human Services Committee is expected to hear the legislation, supported by the John Burton Foundation, in February.
Funding these initiatives and expanded services will be a challenge, Liu and Lowenthal acknowledged. But getting youth homelessness on the state's radar was a necessary first step, they said.
"We cannot live in denial any longer. There are 200,000 youth on the streets," Lowenthal said. "You have to crawl before you can walk. Right now the state is doing nothing."
The problem has only worsened in recent years, with unemployment among teens and young adults reaching record highs during the recession. Unemployment insurance, a safety net for many older, out-of-work adults, is not available for teens and young adults struggling to enter the workforce for the first time.
Before the recession, the unemployment rate among 16- to 24-year-olds hovered around 10 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure, now 18.1 percent, climbed to as high as 19.5 percent in April last year and lags far behind the nation's overall rate of 9.4 percent.
In California, unemployment is even higher and is expected to remain above 10 percent for three more years, according to a projection released yesterday by the Business Forecasting Center at the University of Pacific.