Homeless teens forced to choose jail just to get a square meal

By Marcus Henderson

Jail or starvation are the hard choices some American teens have to make when facing uncertainty of where their next meal is coming from, the Urban Institute reported in September.

Teens spoke about going to jail or failing school, so they could attend summer classes to receive lunches as another means for ensuring regular meals, the report stated.

“A lot of people are choosing to be in jail rather than be on the street,” said a girl in Portland. “It might not be the best food, might not be the best place to be, but it’s a roof over your head.

“Every single day, they eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” she continued.

Girls in Greensboro Metro agreed, “Jail is a luxury, especially for people who live in a trailer. Some people, including teens, will commit a crime to get a place to stay, a meal.”

Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity in America, by the Urban Institute, surveyed some youths who discussed selling their body or engaging in sex for money as a strategy to make ends meet.

“When you’re selling your body, it’s more in disguise,” explained a teen boy in rural North Carolina. “Like if I had sex with you, you have to buy me dinner tonight…that’s how girls deal with the struggle…That’s better than taking money because if they take money, they will be labeled a prostitute.”

With low-income wages stagnated, declining cash assistance and the recession, hardships increased for families already living in poverty, according to the report.

Impossible Choices finds an estimated 6.8 million young people ages 10 through 17 are living in food-insecure households.

Teens in such families routinely take on the role of parents, often going hungry so younger siblings can eat, and they are out searching for ways to bring in food and money.

“I will go without a meal if that’s the case,” said one girl in Chicago, “as long as my two young siblings is good, that’s all that really matters to me.”

The youth had engaged in criminal behavior from shoplifting food to selling drugs and stealing items to resell for cash, the survey found. Young men in limited job option communities were the most likely to participate in such behaviors.

The surveyed showed that most teens felt that parents do everything they can to shield their children from hunger, but some also felt pressured to contribute to the family.

“Basically (those parents) are saying, ‘Get up and do something productive to help your family out,” explained a young man in San Diego.  “Don’t just watch (us) struggle.”

This can start as early as age 13; with parents telling the youth to look for a summer job. This intensifies by the time they turn 18 and they feel they have little choice but to start supporting themselves, the survey found.

Even when not pressured, some teens felt the need to take the initiative to help.

“Someone I knew dropped out of high school to make money for the family,” said a girl in San Diego. “She felt the need to step up; she started selling herself.”

Realistically teens have limited employment opportunities and earning power. This leaves many vulnerable to exploitation from gangs who want boys to sell drugs or girls to traffic sex for adults who want to date teens, the survey found.

There were 193 young people from 20 focus groups taking part in the research.

The participants were between ages 13–18, eight groups were majority African-American, five were majority Latino, four were majority White, and the remaining three were mixed.


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