There’s a hidden epidemic of homeless teens in America, and the documentary Homestretch sheds light on the problems of homeless youth on the streets, such as housing, education and sexual abuse and the government’s efforts to solve this problem.
“We were searching for subjects that hit us in the heart,” Kirsten Kelly, co-creator of Homestretch, told The Atlantic in an interview.
“We found (a) kid (who) was basically kicked out because he had come out as gay in high school…We started researching and learning over time that there were over 15,000 kids registered in the Chicago public school system classified as homeless, and no one was really talking about it.”
The U.S. Department of Education defines homeless students as those “who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” Such kids accounted for nearly 5 percent of Chicago’s total public-school student population.
The number of homeless teens is believed to be much higher due to the transient nature of homeless youths, the magazine reported.
“These kids’ ability to mask their predicaments unfortunately makes it more difficult to alleviate that suffering,” wrote Atlantic reporter Terrance F. Ross.
The film explores issues ranging from immigration to kids growing up as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) — experiences that serve as clues to why certain children end up on the streets, The Atlantic reported.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports as many as four in 10 homeless youth have experienced sexual abuse. “One of the things that no one really talks about is that very often when young people run away from home, they are running away from abuse,” de Mare said.
A 2014 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless showed that the longer a kid is homeless, the greater the likelihood that child will be physically assaulted, raped or trafficked.
Safe temporary housing is often a rare commodity for the 1.2 million homeless children identified by the Department of Education (DOE). “On any given night in the US, fewer than 5,000 emergency and transitional-living beds are available for young homeless people,” The Atlantic reported.
Homestretch points to public schools as a solution. Every school district in the country is legally required to designate “homeless liaisons” for their campuses. However, the film reveals these liaisons are often overworked.
Nationally, there is a bipartisan legislative effort to address the problem of homeless youth by expanding the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of “homeless person” to reach a greater number of homeless teens who are transient, according to the Atlantic.
The broadening of the definition of “homeless” is not without opponents. “It will include a lot of people who aren’t homeless; they would then be competing with people who are homeless for resources,” said Nan Roman, who oversees the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Testifying before Congress, Stephanie Van Housen, DOE-designated “homeless liaison” in Iowa, said, “I cannot stress to you enough the importance of (expanding how we identify) who is homeless,” she said, “I do not want to have to tell one of my students, ‘If you really want help, just go sleep under the bridge at the Iowa River.’”
In order for many of these struggling teens to qualify for assistance, she emphasized, they would have to be “homeless” in the most literal definition of the word.
“The unintended consequence of these debates is that government agencies end up playing a game of hot-potato with homeless teens,” wrote Ross, former editorial fellow at The Atlantic.