Cody is now 25 and has struggled with homelessness and mental health challenges. “Living on the streets takes its toll mentally,” he says. “Not knowing where your next meal is coming from or where you’re going to sleep, you deal with this every day. I kept moving to stay safe, but you get depressed and suicidal.”
Maybe you didn’t notice Cody on his way back to work when he was 19, or it never occurred to you that this young man would be homeless. Or maybe the people you pass at the Port Authority, or Penn Station, or on the subway today, who look like they’re homeless, look older. Due to the increasing and highly visible number of people experiencing homelessness and, in particular, those with mental illness, the homelessness crisis is once again drawing our collective attention. And as good-faith debates return to the fore in New York and other major cities about what to do about the homelessness crisis in the short term, we already know what steps to take to reduce and ultimately end the crisis. with the homeless in the long term. term.
We need a collective will to act. We need to humanely and compassionately respond to the needs of people with mental illness living on the streets. At the same time, we must act now to prevent a generation of young people from the same fate.
Each year across the country, approximately 4.2 million young people between the ages of 13 and 25 experience some form of homelessness, and millions more are housing insecure. All of them have experienced significant trauma, violence and/or exploitation on the streets. More than half of them reveal a mental health challenge, ranging from depression and anxiety to serious mental illness.
Many youth experiencing homelessness are individuals of color and have experienced the traumatic impact of racism. A third identify as LGBTQ+ and have experienced rejection at home, stigma, discrimination and physical harm, all of which affect their mental health. In many cases, their mental health problems went undiagnosed. These young people are at the highest risk of spending their lives on the streets.
In the short term, we stand with those who believe that real-time support from mental health professionals on the streets, better training for frontline police, more on-the-spot treatment on the streets and in mental health and care facilities should immediately prioritize the basic human rights of all people experiencing homelessness. And, of course, more generally, we need broad primary prevention services that provide access to housing, mental health services, and economic opportunity for vulnerable individuals and families.
But there is a critical opportunity that lies in between, and that is to ensure that we prevent the current population of homeless youth from spending a lifetime on the streets.
We must recognize the profound impact of trauma on young people experiencing homelessness and the centrality of building mental health resilience to help them move on with their lives. One of the biggest challenges is identifying the young people most in need of mental health support. Many youth experiencing homelessness are understandably initially reluctant to disclose such mental health challenges due to the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Equipping those closest to at-risk youth with the skills to recognize and respond to mental health crises is one way to work toward creating environments where they can thrive. Covenant House, in partnership with the NFL Players Association, provided youth mental health first aid training to frontline staff working with homeless youth in New York City and several other locations across the US
Covenant House conducts mental health screenings and assessments, provides individual counseling and group sessions for young people, and we help young people develop strategies to manage their trauma and move forward in their lives. This work is central to homelessness prevention and intervention.
We need to fully embrace the approaches we already know work. Meeting the immediate needs of young people for food, clothing and shelter. Providing education and employment services that set them on the path to success. Providing mental health services and treatment so they can not only survive but thrive. And delivering all of these services through a trauma-informed lens that recognizes their humanity, aspirations, skills and talents.
Cody received all these services and is now working and living successfully in his own apartment. But there are still so many young people who are not so lucky. We must act now before they become the next generation of people to experience long-term homelessness and reach the point of no return.
Cargill is the director of player health for the NFL Players Association. Farber is executive director of Covenant House New York.