Physical and Mental Health
Homelessness takes an enormous toll -- both physically and mentally -- on young people, and every year, thousands of youth experiencing homelessness die on the streets due to illness, assault, or suicide.
Many of the physical and mental health issues these young people face are similar to those faced by adults living homeless. But children and youth are still developing physically, cognitively, psychologically, and emotionally, and the risks and trauma they experience at this stage can produce long-lasting effects, including on their development and functioning.
Youth without homes often bear the stress and poor health that were engendered in their violent or dysfunctional households of origin. Once they’re on the streets, they’re compelled to prioritize daily survival over simmering health issues, and come to suffer extraordinarily high rates of both chronic and acute health problems. Nutrition is hardly uppermost in their minds; young people facing homelessness eat when and what they can. One young man, who became a Covenant House New Jersey resident, recalled:
"When I was homeless, my mom and I would scrap together whatever money we could to eat. One time we had to eat popcorn and eggs for a whole week. Coming to Covenant House, I was just so happy to have food three times a day, and that it was free."
Young people experiencing homelessness sleep poorly and unprotected; may be forced to neglect personal hygiene; and may engage in unhealthy coping behaviors such as using addictive substances like tobacco, drugs, or alcohol and engaging in high-risk sex.
Sleeping on the streets or in crowded shelters leaves youth vulnerable to infections like flu and hepatitis and to conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and respiratory illnesses, including asthma and pneumonia, which require regular, uninterrupted treatment. Because young people living unstably often lack health insurance, these problems go unchecked, medication is beyond their reach, and even a minor untreated infection can morph into a major health emergency.
Studies show that depression, anxiety, substance use, and post-traumatic stress disorder are among the most common mental health issues young people facing homelessness experience. More than one in three young people who come to Covenant House for care and sanctuary arrive with a mental health issue or diagnosis.
I was subjected to gay conversion therapy during nearly two years. My attempts to run away were always exposed, I was exhausted, tired of hiding who I was. Ending my life seemed like the only way I could find peace.
Across our movement, from Managua to Missouri to Vancouver, Covenant House provides young people facing homelessness with sanctuary and immediate and ongoing care for their physical and mental health issues and needs. Our trauma-informed, resilience-focused programming acknowledges the high-stress lives our children and youth have experienced, and is designed to help them deal with the mental and physical health effects of homelessness as they advance toward a better future.