The Negative Effects of Stereotyping Youth Homelessness

The issue of youth homelessness in the United States is a significant concern, with an estimated 4 million young adults experiencing homelessness each year, a number likely underrepresented due to the nuances of homeless data collection. Stereotypes surrounding homeless youth can perpetuate negative perceptions, leading to difficulties in finding safe housing and stable employment. Organizations like Project Kompass aim to support homeless young women by providing a fixed residence and program guidelines. However, misconceptions and discrimination from housing authorities and landlords can hinder efforts to secure housing for these individuals. Challenging stereotypes and advocating for fair treatment of homeless youth is crucial in addressing this pressing social issue. The recent experiences of Project Kompass highlight the challenges faced in finding suitable housing options for homeless youth and the need to combat stigma and discrimination in the housing sector. 

Project Kompass recently explored an apartment in the Greater Lowell Area suitable for 3-4 single individuals. It was envisioned as a potential new housing opportunity for residents ready to move on from transitional living, but not quite financially ready to move on their own. Priced at $2,400 per month, dividing the cost among four residents would require each to contribute $600, excluding utilities, parking, and on-site laundry. This price was more reasonable than the average market-rate price of $1,400 for a one-bedroom, and more quickly accessible than the subsidized one-bedrooms where waitlists exceed two years.

However, when expressing interest in collaboration, Project Kompass faced reluctance and apprehension from the landlord. This revealed a challenging situation in assisting the young residents in securing independent housing. The landlord asked questions like, “Will you be drug testing them? How can you guarantee that they will pay their rent? We would need to install cameras throughout the apartment to monitor them. You’re going to stop by every day to make sure that the apartment is taken care of, right? Would you help remove them if they didn’t pay their rent so we wouldn’t face court costs?” Project Kompass did not move forward with the collaboration to protect the dignity of our residents.

This encounter was not a one-time incident. Project Kompass also received a call from a different landlord in the Brockton area, requesting a reference for one of our residents who had applied for a one-bedroom apartment. The landlord was skeptical and asked invasive questions
about the resident, such as how she was earning her income, how we could be sure the paystubs she submitted to the landlord were accurate, and if the amount of money in her savings account was earned legally. Project Kompass responded with professionalism and transparency, assuring the landlord that the resident had excelled in our program by taking advantage of the free housing and diligently following a budget and savings plan. Project Kompass also addressed the stereotypes of youth homelessness with the landlord in an attempt to provide education on the causes of homelessness. Ironically, the landlord then shared his own experiences with homelessness and disclosed that he too was once a young adult living out of his car and on the streets, struggling to find and afford safe housing. Despite his own experiences with homelessness, the landlord still engaged in the narrative that homeless youth are untrustworthy.

These questions highlight a significant issue where stereotypes about youth homelessness hinder their access to fair housing opportunities. By perpetuating these stereotypes, not only are individuals struggling to secure permanent housing, but a misleading narrative about homelessness is also being reinforced. It is crucial to challenge these assumptions and promote a more accurate understanding of the complex factors that contribute to homelessness, to foster a more compassionate and effective dialogue on this pressing social issue.

The stereotypes surrounding youth homelessness are harmful and inaccurate, painting young adults facing housing crises as rebellious, drug-addicted, or disabled individuals who are not deserving of safe and secure housing. In reality, many youth experiencing homelessness are in
that situation due to factors beyond their control, such as chronic family economic struggles, rejection based on sexuality or gender identity, unplanned pregnancies, or fleeing unsafe environments. These misconceptions can have serious consequences, making it harder for homeless youth to find housing or secure employment. It’s important to challenge these stereotypes and recognize the underlying issues that lead to youth homelessness, rather than placing blame on the individuals themselves.

At Project Kompass, over 50% of our youth come to us from dysfunctional homes. This includes DCF involvement, chronic parental mental  health issues, familial substance abuse, and financial difficulties, all of which are consequences of systemic failures within our society. Some of our residents have even arrived at our doorstep on or before their 18th birthday, dropped off by parents who believe they no longer need to care for their child based on the legal definition of adulthood. Many residents come to us scared or embarrassed, yet they show outstanding resilience. Half have survived out of their cars, while others have couch-surfed with friends or family until they overstayed their welcome. We see many who have escaped domestic violence and sex trafficking. We have never encountered a resident who willingly wanted to struggle with
homelessness, chose to be kicked out of their parent’s home, or happily decided to sleep in their car instead of a warm bed at night. Instead, our residents have struggled due to rising rents and lack of available housing, have been neglected and abandoned by parents who can barely afford
to care for themselves, and have made the difficult decision to sleep in their cars rather than in an unsafe home environment.

In confronting the harsh realities of youth homelessness, it becomes abundantly clear that stereotypes and misconceptions only serve to deepen the wounds of those already enduring immense hardship. The recent encounters of Project Kompass with landlords underscore the pervasive nature of these stereotypes and the barriers they erect on the path to securing stable housing for homeless young adults. It is disheartening to witness individuals who have experienced homelessness themselves perpetuating harmful narratives about the trustworthiness of homeless youth. Yet, amidst these challenges, there shines a beacon of hope—the resilience and determination exhibited by the young adults served by Project Kompass. These individuals have faced adversity with courage and fortitude, often navigating treacherous waters from a tender age. Their stories are testaments to the systemic failures within our society that have left them vulnerable and marginalized. At Project Kompass, we stand in solidarity with our residents, advocating tirelessly for their right to safe and secure housing. We challenge the stereotypes that seek to diminish their worth and perpetuate harmful narratives about homelessness. We strive to foster a more compassionate and nuanced understanding of the complex factors that contribute to youth homelessness, recognizing that each individual’s journey is unique and deserving of empathy and support. As we continue our mission to provide housing, support, and resources to homeless young adults, we invite you to join us in this vital endeavor. Together, let us challenge stereotypes, dismantle barriers, and create a society where every young person has the opportunity to thrive, regardless of their circumstances. Let us work towards a future where  homelessness is not met with judgment and indifference but with compassion and solidarity