People unfamiliar with youth homelessness may assume that every young person has a guardian and a place to call home. But for an estimated 4.2 million youth in America, finding a safe place to sleep at night is a constant challenge. In Baltimore alone, over 1,400 people under age 25 are homeless. 

At Baltimore drop-in center Youth Empowered Society, Bloomberg Fellow Maia Gibbons sees the plight of homeless young people every day. She first joined YES as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer and has worn many hats there, including roles in case management, education, evaluation and advocacy. Knowing how unstable housing can seriously impact health, Maia is studying for a master’s in public health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

We talked to her about what youth homelessness looks like, the shortcomings of existing homeless services when it comes to young people, and how traumatic experiences, such as family violence and not having a stable place to live, affect the growing brain. 

What are some misconceptions people have about youth homelessness?

For a long time, there was a misconception that youth don’t even experience homelessness. People assume that youth without guardians must be in the juvenile justice system or the foster care system, but that’s not true for everyone. There are also different degrees of homelessness, defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, that people don’t understand. Category 1 includes people on the streets, which is how most people perceive homelessness. Categories 2 and 3 include people who are at risk of losing their housing and unaccompanied youth who bounce around other people’s homes, typically sleeping on couches or in other improvised arrangements. Youth from the latter categories are who we see most at YES. They’re exchanging money, food and even sex just for a place to stay. They are in and out of different places all the time and often have nowhere to go permanently. 

How do the misconceptions impact the services young people are able to get?

Maia Gibbons

Maia Gibbons

A lot of systems in homeless services are designed for adults. For example, Baltimore City has individuals go through a coordinated system using a common application that prioritizes people based on how high their needs are. One of the ways you score higher on your needs is based on how long you’ve been homeless. This makes it more difficult for youth to access resources simply because of their age. If you’re under 18, you can’t even stay at most emergency shelters. 

Youth also report not feeling safe in shelters and programs designed for adults. Youth often become homeless because they exited the foster-care system, so many of them have already experienced so much trauma — such as physical or sexual abuse — and those experiences are perpetuated in these systems.

It sounds like the young people you work with have been through a lot. How do you address that? 

When our brains are developing at a young age, we are incredibly susceptible to stress hormones. Stress hormones impact our amygdala, which is responsible for our “fight, flight or freeze” response, as well as our pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for the “pause” that allows someone to assess what is and isn’t real. Someone who has experienced a lot of trauma might be stuck in a “flight, fight, freeze” mode in situations that normally wouldn’t cause such a response. For example, if someone were to raise their voice in a seemingly non-threatening way, that could trigger a young person who has experienced a lot of trauma to act out. 

At YES, we try to communicate and design rules and consequences that involve the youth and take into account the fact that, often, negative behavior is just motivated by a need that isn’t being met. So we work on those needs first. The classic phrasing in the trauma-informed world is shifting from asking “What’s wrong with you?” to asking “What happened to you?” Ultimately, when you take into account what trauma really means for brain development and life functioning, you start to adapt the way you approach challenges.