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.
Sleeping on the streets or in crowded shelters leaves youth vulnerable to a variety of illnesses. These include:
- Infections like flu and hepatitis.
- Respiratory illnesses, including asthma and pneumonia.
Many physical health care issues go untreated.
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. Many physical health care issues go untreated, leading to worsening outcomes over time, and chronic illness.
Young people experiencing homelessness are at risk for facing long-term food insecurity. They don't have access to an adequate supply of nutritious, affordable food. Hunger and lack of nutrition impacts developmental, behavioral, and psychological growth in young people.
Mental health care is one of our foundational interventions at Covenant House. More than half of all young people in the U.S. express symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable as they are still developing cognitively, psychologically, and emotionally. In addition to this, our youth have often experienced:
- Physical abuse.
- Sexual abuse.
- Domestic violence.
- Street violence.
- Years of trauma from living unhoused.
Youth experiencing homelessness suffer higher levels of mental illness than their housed peers.
Every young person who comes to Covenant House has some degree of trauma as a result of their households and communities of origin. One in three were placed in foster care, one in four experienced domestic violence, and one in five are survivors of human trafficking. Nearly 90% of our youth are young people of color and have experienced the traumatic impacts of racism and discrimination.
Unsurprisingly, data from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council shows that youth experiencing homelessness suffer higher levels of mental illness than their housed peers.
In most cases, mental health issues go undiagnosed.
- Forty percent of homeless youth struggle with severe depression.
- These young people are three times more likely to attempt suicide.
- LGBTQ+ youth are twice as likely to die by suicide.
In most cases, these issues go undiagnosed. Sadly, we often witness panic attacks, suicidal behaviors, self-injury, and even acute psychosis (e.g. hallucinations or delusions). Our youth are often afraid of the derogatory labels and terms they have heard to describe mental health issues and afraid of the stigmas associated with therapy. The association is alarming and triggering to them, making them reluctant to open up about their experiences. This is particularly prominent in survivors of human trafficking.
Covenant House’s Approach to Well-being
Our work recognizes the deep impact trauma has had on our youth and the centrality of building mental health resilience to help them move forward with their lives. One thing that makes our work different from many other youth-serving organizations is our open intake policy — our doors are open 24/7 for any youth in crisis. At Covenant House, young people find the physical and mental health care they need, from the moment they enter our doors through the moment they're ready to set out on their own. That care is built on the kindness and expertise of our staff who provide absolute respect and unconditional love to every young person facing homelessness.
Across our movement, from Guatemala City 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, strengths-based programming is designed to help them deal with the mental and physical health effects of homelessness as they advance toward a better future.