Here’s What We Really Need to Understand About Youth Homelessness

A new campaign from a U.K.-based nonprofit hopes to inspire volunteers to open their homes.

(Photo: Depaul UK/Facebook)

Apr 9, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Most of us would probably be a little wary of letting a stranger crash on our living-room sofa for the night. Make that person homeless, and all sorts of concerns might pop up: We’re going to get robbed or physically assaulted. But as a new campaign from Depaul UK, the largest youth homeless nonprofit in Britain, reveals, many of our worries about letting a young person sleep on our couch instead of on the street are rooted in stereotypes.

With its recently launched campaign “Street Corners,” the nonprofit has placed a series of thought-provoking posters on the corners of six buildings across London. The goal: to help people understand that young people ages 16–25 who don’t have homes aren’t necessarily violent criminals or drug addicts.

(Photo: Depaul UK/Facebook)

When you look at the posters straight on, they seem to tell a story that reinforces all the negative preconceptions out there about homeless people.

“Never in a million years would you consider taking a homeless youth in. People who give up their spare room need some kind of special training,” reads the first few sentences on one of the posters.

But when a person stands at an angle where both sides of the building can be seen, that line morphs into one that reveals another side to the story: “Never in a million years would you let someone suffer. That’s why you’d consider taking a homeless youth in, just until they’re back on their feet.”

(Photo: Depaul UK/Facebook)

The nonprofit managed to connect more than 13,400 homeless youths with a place to sleep in 2014. But as Londoners grapple with increased income inequality and high housing costs, Depaul UK has found a 300 percent increase in young people asking for help. That means more people are needed who are willing to open their homes—and breaking down stereotypes is one way to get them. To that end, each of the posters come with a phone number that passersby can text if they’re interested in hosting someone for the night.

(Photo: Depaul UK/Facebook)

The idea is certainly one that could make a difference for homeless young people on this side of the pond. According to the Department of Justice, about 1.7 million teenagers in the United States experience homelessness or run away from home. Sometimes their families may be homeless and a shelter or car only has so much space for mom, dad, and younger siblings. However, youths often leave home because they’re being abused in some way. Plenty of young people who come out as LGBT to their families end up being kicked out of their homes.

Depaul’s campaign probably won’t reassure everyone out there that a homeless young person is simply grateful for a warm, safe place to spend the night. However, at a time when cities are increasingly criminalizing the homeless (and buildings in London have installed spikes to keep folks from sleeping on the sidewalk), let’s hope the campaign can at least help build empathy for youths who need a helping hand.