You walk by a parked car and notice that it’s packed full of personal stuff – clothing, a backpack, maybe a blanket or sleeping bags. You may well keep walking because it looks like a family on vacation.

Yet, you may have just passed one of the hardest groups of people to see, let alone count: a family experiencing homelessness.

Family and youth homelessness is sometimes referred to as “invisible homelessness” because moms, kids, teens and young adults often seek shelter in public places that are perceived to be safer: a hospital emergency room, bus station, campground or park, even an abandoned building. That, or they live “doubled-up” with another family or crammed into a cheap motel room.

There are various definitions of ‘home’ and ‘homelessness.’ The U.S. Department of Education considers home to be a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines those experiencing homelessness as,

“People who are living in a place not meant for human habitation, in emergency shelter, in transitional housing, or are exiting an institution where they temporarily resided.”

Although that limited definition helps with counting (shelters and institutions typically report the number of people living there) it is also vexing because it misses those who are hiding in plain sight.

It’s a significant problem for teens and youth, too. The state’s 2017 HOMELESS Annual Report for Arizona calls homeless youth the … “most difficult subpopulations of homeless individuals to quantify.” Teens and youth (young people between the ages of 18 and 24) find themselves alone and on the street for a wide range of reasons: they left home or were thrown out; aged out of the foster care system and have no family or resources; or were abandoned by parents or guardians. A painfully large number of teens and youth were kicked out of the home because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual. A stunning figure from the ICPH (Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness) estimates that over the past several years in Arizona, youth homelessness has increased by 364.6%. Some experts refer to it as an epidemic.

Children pay a terrible price for homelessness

Research suggests up to 42% of homeless children are under the age of 6; the effects of homelessness on them are profound. Absenteeism means they tend to fall behind academically. Homeless children often can’t read as well and may show up at school depressed or hungry. (Incidentally, according to 2016-17 data from the Arizona Department of Education, an estimated 26,000 children in grades K – 12 are homeless and enrolled in public school.)

Youth and teens experiencing homelessness are subject to the same kinds of challenges. Additional stress caused by poor nutrition, substance use or abuse, mental illness, and physical abuse or neglect can actually negatively modify brain development.

All these groups – children, teens and youth – share another common thread: most have witnessed or experienced trauma. Taken together, these experiences can cause them to be unable to function productively in the workforce or in their personal lives.

Solutions: how to make the invisible visible

UMOM takes the position that moving families with children or youth into shelter and/or housing as quickly as possible is the best first step. Once in a safe environment (sometimes even sooner), caseworkers begin assessing the family or youth to determine their barriers to housing – the circumstances that led them to homelessness in the first place. Then, by providing appropriate wrap-around services that address multiple issues, people begin to chart their own path to a permanent, stable living situation.

Of course, there are always bigger issues at play. Rents have spiked dramatically in the greater Phoenix area – by some estimates, as much as 60% over the past several years. Communities must apply significant pressure to political leaders to require a larger percentage of housing units to be “affordable” – that is, rent that constitutes less than 30% of monthly income. (Average rent for a 2-bedroom rental in Phoenix is approximately $1291. At a minimum-wage income of $15/hour or $2400/month, an average rental consumes 50% of an individual’s gross monthly pay.)

We may also need to train ourselves to see in a new way. When we ask a homeless person’s name, we offer dignity. Perhaps as we see more, we can refer more to agencies like UMOM that help.

Indeed, as we see more we may also be willing to say more to those in power who have the ability to change the way we care for and think about these vulnerable children, teens and young adults – and their parents.

To get involved or to learn more about UMOM New Day Centers, please visit our Get Involved page and sign up for a tour of our main campus. You can also give anytime at https://umom.org/support-our-work/.