Young, High, and Homeless
Youth rates of drug use, from alcohol to marijuana to heroin, are the lowest they've been in decades. So why are we still hearing stories about violent, drug-using homeless youth? Despite the information at our disposal, fear-mongering and stigma remain at the forefront in King County's war on homelessness.
We've all seen it. The stereotypical image of a young person experiencing homelessness. It's been plastered across the media for years, and the idea remains largely unchanged. They are lazy, aggressive, unwilling to work but willing to steal the money they need to fund their drug addiction. They spend their days shooting up heroin in parks, and their nights partying with people just like them. They're a menace, and they choose to be homeless because they hate rules. Even reading that, we have it admit it sounds a little far-fetched, right? I mean, these are your everyday teenagers we're talking about here. Something doesn't seem right.
That's because something isn't right.
In 2018 teens between the ages of 13 to 18 reported lower usage of all drugs than since recording began, with the exception of marijuana which stayed largely the same for those over the age of 16 due to the onset of vaping. These numbers rose only slightly when analyzing the data for youth experiencing homelessness, with youth homeless populations using fewer drugs less regularly than any other unstably housed population.
So if teens, even those experiencing homelessness, are using far fewer drugs than any other demographic, why are they the ones being painted as violent drug-addicts by the media?
Simply put, because they can't defend themselves. As we read in our last blog post, which addressed the Street-to-Prison pipeline targeting King County youth, youth who are experiencing homelessness are in a race against time once they enter the streets. From the moment a youth exits housing and enters into homelessness, the public image of this young person has changed. We know from research and surveying that a vast majority of homeless youth become homeless due to a breakdown of stability at home, such as a parent losing a job, domestic violence, or substance abuse by a parent or guardian. Despite this information being readily available, youth homeless populations are often seen as being largely 'voluntary', that is to say that the youth experiencing homelessness made a choice to do so due to drug use, bad behavior, or general unwillingness to stay at home. Why is this image still being shown to the public, despite all the information disproving it? For the same reason it is easier to walk past a stray dog when it barks at you. By painting homeless youth as a violent, drug-addicted, undeserving population, it becomes easier to then amplify incarceration efforts without public interference. We've seen the public outcry that comes when young children are locked up without having committed a crime, so the logical solution in a system which targets homelessness is to make homelessness a crime. Now, whenever a youth uses a drug or behaves poorly, rather than educate and refocus like we would housed youth these children are instead put behind bars, sometimes for decades at a time. The truth of the matter is we do have a drug crisis on our hands. The fact that youth, having been exposed to the trauma of homelessness, feel the need to resort to using drugs to get through the day is a tragedy. Something must be done. But that something is not, and will never be, to throw a child in prison. If we are to help our youth, especially our most vulnerable, we have to look beyond criminalization and to rehabilitation and reconnection if we want to see lasting, sustainable results. With almost 90% of prisoners going on to be re-incarcerated within ten years, we have created a self-fulfilling prophecy for our youth. By criminalizing youth homelessness, whose only true victim is the homeless child, we in turn create criminal adults who are part of a much larger and much more complex system of crime and punishment. The only way to stop the cycle is to not let it begin, and that happens by treating homeless youth like the young, vulnerable human beings that they are. TL;DR - Youth drug abuse is down, but that information doesn't benefit the criminalization system currently targeting homelessness. By allowing criminalization of homelessness to continue we are turning a generation of non-violent youth into life-long criminals destined for re-incarceration. The cycle only stops when our stigma does.