Advocates say youth homelessness getting worse

  • Sean Brown is Concord’s new fire chief. Tom Kallechey

Monitor staff
Published: 2/26/2021 3:31:40 PM

Youth homelessness is usually an invisible problem – kids move from house to house without drawing much attention. Since the pandemic made couch-surfing a high risk activity, the quiet crisis has been amplified.

Advocates for homeless youth say more young adults, specifically those between 18 and 25, are reaching out for help during the pandemic.

Erin Kelly, the program director of Waypoint Homeless Youth and Young Adult Services, said her organization typically sees a decrease in demand for services during the winter – the cold months are when friends are most likely to open their doors to kids in need. This winter, though, demand has not declined.

Across the state, young adults and children as young as 13 have been pushed into the adult homeless system as demand for youth resources has peaked. Kelly said the pandemic has made it especially difficult to connect with school-age kids, as the usual pipeline developed at schools to keep tabs on at-risk kids has eroded during virtual schooling.

“Those young people who were couch surfing and moving around are the same young people that are not showing up to remote learning,” she said.

Outreach specialists have had to get creative to keep kids engaged. Instead of just calling them, they’ve started texting and messaging them on social media.

Right now, Kelly said, there’s still time to manage the crisis.

“We have a homeless youth problem that we could wrap our arms around and we could really end youth homelessness in our state,” she said.

But this opportunity is fleeting. Keith Kuennig, the advocate attorney for Waypoint, said the state is at a tipping point. One nonprofit dedicated to youth homelessness isn’t enough, he said. Rather, New Hampshire needs to develop a statewide infrastructure to handle the crisis.

“This is an area where we don’t even have one single teen shelter in the entire state,” he said.

Kuennig said Waypoint is in the process of opening drop-in centers in Concord and Rochester to help provide basic services to teenagers in need. Kelly said Waypoint’s community partners in Concord have often reached full capacity and connected them to the adult homeless system, which isn’t tailored to young adults.

“They’re showing up but they’re not staying engaged,” she said. “They’re disappearing.”

This is yet another indication that children are struggling in New Hampshire. The state is simultaneously dealing with a child mental health crisis.

In 2020, the number of children calling a state-wide crisis hotline increased by nearly 20% from the previous year. Earlier this month, 48 children were waiting for inpatient psychiatric beds, the highest number of children on the list in the eight years since emergency department boarding began.

In a roundtable with U.S Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Ken Norton, the executive director of NAMI N.H., voiced concern about the funding for mental health services. Recently, the state has seen unprecedented number of people waiting for psychiatric care beds, especially children.

The crisis has become so severe, New Hampshire Hospital – the state’s psychiatric medical facility – opened beds to children to help ease the boarding crisis.

State officials have scrambled to address the crisis.

In mid-February, Gov. Chris Sununu signed an executive order that will require schools to open for in-person learning at least two days a week, citing mental health concerns.

“It really is for the behavioral and mental health ... that so many of our students have been bearing,” Sununu said at a recent press conference. “It has to be at least a couple days a week to get some eyes on these kids, to get that personal relationship re-established between students and their teachers.”




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