The homelessness crisis in the United States in 2017 is in full view. We see people experiencing homelessness each day on our morning commutes or walking through our neighborhoods. What’s less visible is why these adults became homeless in the first place and how we can prevent it from occurring in the first place, especially homelessness that is persistent and chronic.

There are myriad reasons why an adult or a family may become homeless; however a recent study reveals that youth homelessness is a large pathway into adult homelessness. One study, Pathways into adult homelessness, showed that “youth to adult” pathway was the single largest pathway to adult homelessness at 35 percent, compared to 19 percent who entered the homeless population because of housing crisis, 17 percent because of substance abuse and 16 percent for mental health reasons. And in a recent national study released by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, over a 12-month period about half of homeless young people reported experiencing homelessness for the first time in their lives.

Additionally, the “youth to adult” homelessness pathway is associated with the longest and most entrenched adult homelessness experiences, on average. Of the population of homeless adults who first experienced homelessness as youth, three-quarters reported chronic, long-term homelessness. The findings confirm that the longer young people are homeless, the more difficult it becomes for them to find stable housing.

Taken together, these studies underscore two key points. First, when the system breaks down for young people, it often stays broken, and can result in a lifetime of homelessness. And second, working to prevent homelessness for young people, long before they find themselves on the street, could be a powerful way to prevent chronic adult homelessness.

These studies have important policy implications. They support the need early prevention strategies to keep young people and their families from becoming homeless in the first place, as well as fast and early intervention with youth to stabilize their living situations if they do become homeless. To combat the homelessness crisis, we must make sure youth homelessness is a rare occurrence, or if it occurs, that the experience is brief and one-time.

All homeless people, regardless of how they ended up on the street, deserve our support. This growing problem needs to be addressed from multiple angles. But it's clear that we can prevent a lifetime of homelessness by focusing on ending homelessness for young people.

If you want to learn more and get involved with efforts to prevent and end youth homelessness, you should check out these organizations.

Funders Together to End Homelessness

Funders Together to End Homelessness is a philanthropic membership organization devoted to ending homelessness in the United States. Their work emphasizes best practices and innovation to ensure investments drive toward solutions to end homelessness.  They host a Youth Network for funders particularly interested in investing in efforts to prevent and end youth homelessness.

A Way Home America

A Way Home America is building a national movement to end youth homelessness in the United States by 2020. The initiative includes homeless youth providers, advocates, academics, government agencies, philanthropists, and, more importantly, young people with lived experience with homelessness.

SchoolHouse Connection

SchoolHouse Connection is a national organization that promotes success for children and youth experiencing homelessness through the education system. A founding principle for SchoolHouse Connection is that access to education, from early childhood through post-secondary, gives children and youth the tools to end their homelessness and achieve their dreams.