Finding Formal Work: Homeless Youth

When we think of the homeless population, it is sometimes hard to understand all the differing circumstances of how these individuals lost their homes and also why they are unable to break the cycle of homelessness.  I’d like to highlight challenges faced by homeless youth and how their particular condition is in dire need of attention and assistance.

The economy can typically be separated into the formal and the informal sector.  The formal sector would include typical full- and part-time employment but also temporary or short-term labor such as construction, snow removal, childcare, or cleaning.  These positions are included in the formal sector because hours of labor are tracked, taxed and regulated.  Differing from this, the informal sector includes any form of labor that contributes to economic activity but is unregulated, untaxed, and untracked formally by the government.  The informal sector includes any job that is not regulated by the government and is paid through untaxed exchange including panhandling, drug sales, and other illegal activities.  The World Bank projects the informal sector in high-income countries to comprise around 10% of economic activity, while in low-income countries the informal sector could contribute to over 50% of economic activities.

The informal sector offers a financial back-up plan for when the formal sector fails to provide income to individuals.  With this being said, the informal sector grows considerably during economic downturns as more people find it difficult to gain jobs in the formal sector.  However, for some individuals, the informal sector is not necessarily a fallback, temporary circumstance.  For the homeless, and especially for homeless youth, the informal sector becomes a habitual place for survival, as the barriers to entry into the formal sector are too steep to overcome.  Considering this, we can understand the challenges youth face in breaking the cycle of homelessness and financial insecurity.

Homeless youth are individuals under the age of 18 who are not currently under parental, foster, or institutional care.  The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention estimates from their most recent study in 2002 that there are 1,682,900 homeless and runaway youth.  These young people, mostly in their later teenage years, account for 1% of the homeless population in urban areas, and in any given year, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates 5-7% of American youths will become homeless at some point.  Homeless youth often find themselves in a pattern of disadvantage that persists from their adolescents.  Coming from homes that faced poverty, substance abuse, or trauma, homeless youth frequently come into their current position as a result of a lifelong struggle of instability.  This instability could have included previous homelessness or life in shelters or foster homes.  This background of struggle can generate a psychological pattern of inferiority, which perpetuates and compounds in these youths’ new life on the streets.  Sometimes youth flee to the street out of desperation, but sometimes because they see it as a viable, safer alternative to their former lifestyle.

The danger of youth homelessness is that these youth not only lack a safe stable living environment, but they also often lack the education and experience necessary to break into the formal work sector.  Homeless youth have difficulty attending school because of the need for legal guardianship, proof of residency, and reliable transportation. The cyclical pattern continues as homeless youth entangle themselves in risky and illegal activities out of necessity to find food, shelter, and defense against further isolation.  However, engaging in these activities marginalizes them from society further, and their criminal history, possible addictions, and emotional or physical damage creates an even higher barrier for them to find formal sector jobs.  Additionally, homeless youth are between 2 and 10 times as likely to contract HIV/AIDS, and homeless youth pregnancies could range between 6 and 22%.

In order to survive, given their incredibly limited resources, homeless youth act rationally and strategically to access enough means for day-to-day existence.  This strategy typically includes participation in informal sector jobs, as immediate access to money is the main goal for homeless youth.  Given that informal sector jobs such as panhandling or squeegeeing require homeless youth to publically display their misfortune, this form of work further adds to their psychological marginalization.  Homeless youth therefore work only for their “daily goal”, an amount appropriate to provide them with basic needs for that day or week.  The informal sector provides youth with a sense of control as they can choose when, where, and in what way they work; however the volatility and susceptibility to violence and harassment the informal sector presents leaves homeless youth without a pathway to long-term security.

The video above is featured on the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth website and gives a brief insight into the struggles youth face coming from challenging family circumstances and into their daily fear of finding food and shelter.  Many non-profits have taken on the challenge of eliminating youth homelessness.  Some are state and city based, but organizations like The National Coalition for the Homeless and The National Network for Youth offer nationwide service to homeless youth.  Their first objective is to provide the day-to-day necessities that these youth prioritize as their number one goal.  Secondly, they aim to rescue homeless youth from the cyclical nature of informal sector work.  These national organizations outline ways we can be involved in both objectives and stress the importance of showing compassion to homeless youth through simple acts such as a smile or conversation.  In larger ways, non-profits call on our support to provide basic necessities through in-kind donations especially clothing and through volunteer time at homeless shelters.  To address cyclical issues, we can act as advocates on the homeless behalf through media outlets or political participation, and we can help by encouraging our company, school, or religious organization to offer job opportunities to those experiencing homelessness.   By providing a pathway to formal sector jobs, homeless youth can escape the violence, marginalization, and instability that their previous experiences in informal work has exposed them to.

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