Youth: Tomorrow’s Adult Homeless Population If We Don’t Understand What We Are Dealing With and How to Deal With It

Even if you predominately serve homeless adults, I want you to read this blog.  I want you to do so because if we don’t do the right things for homeless youth now they become the adult homeless population that you work with. And I want you to read this because we think of people becoming adults at age 18 and that is dead wrong from a developmental perspective. Some of the adults you are serving are really youth.

If you already serve youth, I want you to read this blog. I want you to read this blog so that I can better help you understand why certain things are happening in your service delivery. I am going to get all nerdy with some brain development stuff, but in a way that I hope will be helpful to you.

If you are a person who peripherally pays attention to homelessness issues I want you to read this blog so you can realize the staggering costs associated with youth homelessness. You will be shocked. You will want to do something about it. Whether you are conservative or liberal in your perceptions about tax policy, you are going to want to see something different happen in serving youth.

I see mind-boggling different definitions of what it means to be “youth” in my travels. To set the record straight, I think it should go until at least 24. Yup – six years past where many (most?) communities set the bar of service delivery for youth and make a delineation between the youth system and the adult system. Yup – six years after when most youth that have been in care will age out of the foster care system. Yup – some 8 years after we legally are allowed to drive. Yup – years after people can legally be their own decision-maker, buy alcohol, purchase a weapon, serve in the military, or even get married.

Here’s why…

The Corpus Callosum is the part of the brain that takes care of things like intelligence, consciousness and self-awareness. It does not reach maturity until the mid to late 20s. Up until it hits maturity a sense of self is externally defined. A person is defined by what their friends or family think they are.

The Temporal Lobes in the brain help us figure out the appropriate emotion response and regulates emotional maturity. It is still developing up until age 24. Know what this means? It means taking another person’s perspective into account does not come naturally until it does mature.

The Parietal Lobes also develop into the early 20s. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for integration of auditory, visual and tactile signals. Show a mature adult pictures of a range of facial expressions while doing a brain scan and the Parietal Lobes light up. Show a youth the exact same pictures and it is the amygdala that lights up rather than the frontal cortex. The youth brain interprets the pictures to have one of three responses – fight, flight or friendly. The adult brain can decipher the complexity of emotions.

The Frontal Lobe usually doesn’t even begin to start developing until 16. This is the part of the brain that helps us regulate self-control, judgment and deferred gratification. We can have loads of opinions about what youth should be able to do, but the fact is they can’t do what their brains are not ready to do.

Ever ask a young person why they did something and they say, “I don’t know.” Frustrating as it may seem, that can be an honest response. Synaptic wiring is still developing. Growth is still happening in the brain. If we think youth are fully prepared for adulthood just because they are 18 it will lead to bad social policy and hampers our ability to help youth in crisis.

The good news is that we are understanding more about the malleability and reprogramming of the brain. The right experiences and supports can help rewire the brain. Youth that have had a crappy upbringing and become homeless – or had a great upbringing and still become homeless as a youth – need not be plagued with a lifetime of homelessness. But these youth need supports in housing.

Consider some of these facts that we have from the child welfare system that reinforce the need for supports:

  1. Only 75% of youth in foster care graduate high school.
  2. Only 6% of youth that have been in foster care will graduate from a post-secondary institution.
  3. Only 16% of youth that have been in foster care will achieve sustainable employment.

What do we need? Well, not just one approach, but several. Being a youth does not take away the power of choice. Some youth will do great in congregate living arrangements with on-site supports. Others will do great in scattered site housing with mobile supports. Some will benefit from alternative schools, while some will benefit from mainstream school with supports, while others will benefit from a short break from school with re-entry. Some will benefit from structured life skills classes, while others will benefit from integrated, one-on-one instruction in a youth’s own apartment. Some will benefit from job skills training and resume development classes, while others will benefit from job attainment with supports. And I could go on.

And some critics will think – don’t these types of supports cost a lot of money?

Well, the cost of doing nothing is a lot more.

In 2012 the Kellogg Foundation Report “The Economic Value of Opportunity Youth” presents some interesting facts. Each disconnected youth (defined as young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school nor working—usually without a network of family, community, or institutional support) presents an immediate taxpayer burden of $13,900 per year (taxpayer burden is everything service related that taxpayers foot the bill for) and an immediate social burden of $37,450 per year (social burden is all other relevant costs like higher health care costs, marginal excess tax burden, lost wages, etc.). That’s more than $51,000 per year. A disconnected youth that gets to age 25 without there being an effective intervention will impose a future lifetime taxpayer burden of $170,740 and social burden of $529,030.


Across the US there are 6.7 million youth that are disconnected or at risk of being disconnected. That’s 1 in 8 youth. The money adds up pretty quick.

Every youth disconnected for three or more years has very serious consequences. Some of those include: higher likelihood of chronic homelessness as an adult; lower earning potential, more joblessness and erratic employment history; increased likelihood of being a single parent; more reliance on government assistance; greater interaction with the mental health system; more involvement with the criminal justice system; more problematic substance use; and, taxing use of the health care system.

SO…what to do –

  1. Serve youth in youth-specific programs throughout their brain development, up until at least age 24.
  2. Offer an array of housing options with supports – do not keep youth homeless in programming and do not think a one size fits all approach answers all problems.
  3. Improve transitional planning from the foster care system through specialized programming (some great programs totally eclipse the national average for aging out of foster care).
  4. Conduct joint advocacy and awareness on youth homelessness in your community, not just youth organizations advocating for youth.
  5. Ensure that staff working with youth understand brain development so as to not set up unrealistic program expectations or frustration.
  6. Use the costs of disconnected youth to help create the business case for helping more youth through specific, dedicated supports and housing.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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