In the midst of America’s ongoing border crisis, Larkin Street’s Director of Public Funding, Mary Kate Bacalao, shares her opinion on how family separation will lead to more homelessness.
Thousands of children in detention centers today are at grave risk of an opposite and equally abhorrent fate as young adults: abandonment to the streets, where they face homelessness, physical and sexual victimization, and acute side effects to their physical and mental health.
Youth homelessness is a daily search for a safe place to sleep by school-age individuals who lack the family structure and support to reach their full potential. Undocumented youth—those who cross the border alone as well as those separated from their families—experience unthinkable traumas in our streets. To protect themselves, they often pursue under-the-table income that, in a cruel irony, makes their victimization by traffickers and shady employers all the more likely.
The Trump administration is too busy using detained children as pawns in a deterrence game to grasp the consequences of its haphazard and reactive policymaking—from its flip-flopping on DACA to last week’s executive order reversing its own family separation policy. Such opportunism is designed for the instantaneity of the news cycle; it does not contemplate the immediate traumas of family separation and detention or the effects on children’s physical and psychological health over the long term.
Experts cite causal links between early childhood trauma and later health outcomes. The National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners links childhood trauma to a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease. The Presidents of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine link childhood trauma to a range of mental health disorders. There is much that remains unclear—there are limits to existing studies of trauma en masse—but the risk factors for bad outcomes are clearer than not.
Consider the causal relationship between foster care involvement and youth homelessness. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently opined that separated children are “well cared for.” Chief of Staff John Kelly waved away concerns when he asserted that migrant youth are “taken care of—put in foster care or whatever.” The reality is that our child welfare system is a feeder into homelessness for disconnected youth who “age out” in their late teens and early twenties.
At Covenant House—the largest privately funded agency serving homeless youth in this age range—one-third or more of young people come from the foster care system. At Larkin Street Youth Services—the Bay Area’s largest provider of housing and services for homeless youth—37% of young people report histories with foster care, compared to just 4% of the general population in San Francisco.
Reactive policymaking doesn’t just do individual damage to the children living out its immediate and long-term consequences. It also does structural damage, creating logistical impossibilities for our crisis response systems that can aggravate individuals’ experiences of trauma. Even the best-intentioned and best-resourced service providers will struggle to mobilize 24-hour care for nearly 2,500 separated children, particularly if constraints exist—limited guidance, funding, or lead time.
Congress is having enough trouble mobilizing a timely legislative response. Our politicians seem to be prioritizing the bureaucratic same-old over critical thinking on unprecedented problems. While another immigration bill failed in the House recently, the Senate Appropriations Committee okayed more than a hundred million dollars in continuation funding for the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which has provided nonprofit shelter and services for homeless youth since the mid-1970s.
Our legislators and executives need to wake up to the fact that the detained children of today may be sleeping in these federally funded shelters tomorrow. With every day that legislators fail to act, federal agents are putting children in placements that make homelessness a statistical likelihood for up to a third of them. And that’s just one of the risk factors.
Congress must act immediately and without partisanship to right the policy wrongs that got us here and roll out a comprehensive family reunification strategy with strong safeguards to mitigate risks of exploitation and continued trauma. Too much damage has already been done, but if Congress can take the long view with clear and decisive policy action, its effects could be contained.
The rest of us must hold Congress accountable. We know the power of people showing up, and today we need to show up for young people. Don’t stop contacting your representatives. Don’t stop rallying in the streets. Every migrant child—every young person in America—deserves a safe place to sleep.
Stand up for young people experiencing homelessness. Show your support by donating.