Who are the Invisible Faces of the Homeless?

I met Amid* last year at our Young Adult Resource Center (YARC). At age 19, Amid stood nearly 6’8”, was jovial, and incredibly wise for his age. He was well spoken and dressed like any other young adult. Once we talked a little more, I learned he aged out of foster care and had nowhere to stay. He had been sleeping on the streets for a few weeks and had not had food for almost 24 hours. He had been wearing the same clothes for a few days and was carrying all his worldly possessions in his backpack. He simply had no other options but to survive on the streets.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless Houston, an estimated 2,000 youth live on the streets of Houston every year. The last survey of the homeless conducted in January 2017 found that over 630 young adults, aged 14 to 24, are living in a shelter or in places not fit for human habitation. You would never know by looking at him, but Amid is just one of the many invisible faces of the homeless in Houston.

Surviving on the Streets

Unfortunately, Amid’s story is no different from the hundreds of kids we see each year in our programs. In survival mode, these young adults are forced to break into abandoned buildings to find shelter, huddle behind bushes, or seek buildings where there is no security to find refuge. They usually band together in order to protect themselves. While one sleeps, the others stand guard.

Life on the streets exposes them to incredible risks. They witness murders, are exposed to abuse or are themselves victims of abuse and robbery, and are recruited for human trafficking. Survival mode kicks in. Out of hunger, they go in stores to shoplift food. If the weather becomes unbearable, they trade sex for a place to stay the night. They sell drugs and stolen goods for money. They drown their emotional griefs with substance abuse.

Leading Factors of Homelessness

Dr. Sarah Narendorf from the University of Houston and Dr. Diane Santa Maria from The UT Health and Science Center in Houston conducted a “Homeless Youth Risk and Resilience Survey” at YARC and Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth, and found one of the leading risk factors for becoming homeless is experiencing trauma from an early age.

Over 26% of young adults experiencing homelessness have been sexually assaulted, and 40% state they’ve been physically abused. One out of five young adults have attempted suicide, and about the same amount declare need for mental health assistance. The accumulation of trauma these young lives have experienced is unfathomable.

Desire to Overcome

This is the reality of the invisible faces of the homeless. Despite all these hardships and obstacles, we have learned at YARC the one commonality they share: their resiliency and desire to overcome. These young adults are hopeful, and what they need most is our love and support. At YARC, our first priority is to build trust. We do so by providing them a safe environment and meeting their immediate needs first. When ready, our case managers’ first priority is to connect and support young adults to gain and sustain housing.  We also help connect these young adults to other mainstream supports. Our goal is to help these young adults overcome the obstacles that have kept them on the streets and be able to move on to reach their full potential.

Invisible No More

As for Amid… we discovered he is a savant, an amazing artist, and a voracious reader. He speaks fluently six languages, self-taught. Through YARC, we were able to connect him to housing and provided support during his job search. Today he is not only working and living in his own apartment, he is also attending community college with the hopes of becoming a school teacher.

At YARC, we meet young adults like Amid every day. They are not a statistic from a survey. They are not one more tally on a count. They are young men and young women who have their own unique talents and hardships. They all have dreams and the right to achieve them, just like you and me. And each staff member at YARC feels blessed to be able to meet these extraordinary individuals, one on one, to learn how we can help them out of homelessness and on to independence.

*Name and photo changed to protect privacy. 

About the Author:

With over 10 years in math and science public education and creation of the first immigrant high school, Rafael Sarango has a long history of leadership in serving those most in need. Sarango has directed the Young Adult Resource Center (YARC) for the past four years, since its inception. In 2016, Sarango received the National Jefferson Award and the Comcast Hispanic Hero Award due to his passion for helping young adults get off the streets of Houston into safe and affordable housing.