What’s the biggest challenge teens face living in a family homeless shelter?
“Hiding it from my friends”
The stigma of homelessness weighs heavily on the youth we serve, especially for teenagers whose unique developmental needs are overlooked in a shelter environment. Temporary housing programs restrict recreation and discourage community among residents. At DC General Family Shelter, children are not allowed to visit one another’s rooms or leave their parent’s side, which is especially difficult for teens whose developmental task centers around peer socialization and identity formation.
In navigating the universally difficult transition to adulthood, the youth we serve are also faced with recovering from the trauma that led the family to become homeless in the first place and the shame of living in a shelter. Teenagers in family homeless shelters are largely invisible to the public, yet their numbers are growing and they are at high risk for school failure and social isolation without intervention.
We launched our Teen Program at D.C. General in September 2011 in response to an outcry from the teenagers living there for outings and for help getting connected to jobs and other services. In conversations with teens, we learned how challenging it was for them to stay on track academically and feel good about themselves while living in the shelter. Teens described how difficult it was to complete their homework in the hospital-sized room they shared with their family while younger siblings played. They longed for social interaction with their peers, but shelter rules made that virtually impossible.
Our Teen Program was designed to respond to those needs by providing teens with a safe, consistent place to receive tutoring, establish friendships with peers who can relate to their unique circumstances, develop their personal strengths through team-building and leadership activities, interact with guest speakers, and receive support from our Site Manager and caring volunteers. Additionally, through monthly field trips to places like the White House, a haunted house, a Wizard’s game, and local colleges, youth have the opportunity to escape the stress of shelter living and take advantage of the assets of the greater community.
We continue to invest in the program by providing ongoing training for our volunteers and bringing in guest speakers to talk about their career paths or topics that the teens request, such as bullying or dating interpersonal and leadership skills. Since the Teen Program’s founding, participants have indicated overwhelmingly that they feel safe and secure at teen night and have volunteers that genuinely treat them with respect and kindness.
Fact – The National Campaign to End Child Homelessness
In 2011, a total of 1,991 families applied for emergency shelter, yet only a small percentage were placed, with the rest left to fend for themselves. Many families are forced double up with friends and relatives, stay in hotels, sleep outside, or return to unsafe living situations as they await placement