Reno’s youth homelessness problem can be solved, and ultimately can be cost-effective.
I am managing the Youth Network Initiative (You’N-I), a project of the Community Foundation of Western Nevada, to address the needs of youth who are homeless, runaways, or aging out of foster care. The most common causes of youth homelessness are being left on one’s own after aging out of foster care at 18, being kicked out of home and onto the streets for coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, or growing up in poverty without stable parents.
During the 2013–2014 school year the Washoe County School District Children in Transition program identified 3,409 children and youth as homeless at one point during the year. Nationally, Nevada has the highest rate of unsheltered, unaccompanied homeless children and youth .
In March I participated in a three day sleep-out called, “This Is Homelessness” with members of the Eddy House, Volunteers of America, and local media to better understand the reality of youth homelessness.
Nathan was one of the first people I met. He was high on meth and had not slept for three days. He told me, “Meth’s easier to get and used more often than weed.”
Although drugs are prevalent among youth who are homeless, I do not want to create a perception that youth are homeless because of their addiction. For many, their use of hard drugs began after living on their own. Drugs are a tempting option when you are a victim of abuse, or lack an I.D., high school diploma, or a family. The days pass slowly and drugs numb the situation.
Youth homelessness is not an unsolvable problem. We can offer alternatives to a drug-ruled life on the streets. Rather than paying to punish young people existing on the margins of our community, we can provide work force education, treatment and preventative social support services. These options are more cost-effective than jail. It costs Washoe County approximately $550 per night for a minor to be incarcerated at the Jan Evans Juvenile Detention Center, an amount that can easily provide a month of rent.
Think about how far you would get without the social networks and skills gleaned from your own family, your job and your school. There are youth on the streets who feel they have no connection to stable adults to turn to for advice or help, and as a result are vulnerable to drugs, predators and feelings of uselessness and helplessness.
The Children’s Cabinet, the Eddy House, and the Nevada Youth Empowerment Project offer services to help vulnerable youth become independent. They need donations and volunteers. Helping struggling youth now, while they are still coachable and looking for a successful path, will prevent future economic and social burdens.
Nick Tscheekar is the initiatives director for the Community Foundation of Western Nevada.