Malaya McGant and Ari come from different backgrounds, but their paths crossed on the streets of Vancouver.
McGant, a 21-year-old Afro-Indigenous woman, chose to leave home as a teenager rather than live under her mother’s roof where she felt like she couldn’t be herself. Ari, a 23-year-old transgender man who asked to go by his first name for privacy reasons, became homeless when he and his mom couldn’t afford their Vancouver apartment rent.
Both McGant and Ari began camping on Vancouver’s streets at the age of 19 before finding help through Janus Youth Programs, a nonprofit organization serving children, youth and families in Washington and Oregon.
Now housed in their own apartments, they advocate for homeless youth on Clark County’s Youth Action Board, sharing their views with service providers and county officials on what’s being done well and what needs to be done better.
“One of the biggest issues we have now in getting services to youth is that we don’t know where they are or who they are,” Ari said. “We don’t know where they camp, we don’t know how many youth there are, because some youth just do not feel safe coming and asking for help.”
Of the county’s 6,285 Clark County residents who were homeless at any given time in 2021, 27 percent were under 18 and 35 percent were under 24, according to the Council for the Homeless Annual Systems Data.
Vancouver Public Schools, which is helping unaccompanied youth and homeless families through its Family-Community Resource Centers program, identified more than 855 students from kindergarten through 12th grade classified as homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, as of Nov. 1. This represents a 42 percent increase from the same time last year — the highest numbers the district has ever seen, according to Vancouver Public Schools.
“We’re definitely seeing some pretty exponential growth the last few years,” said Melissa Newhouse, the district’s homeless and foster care liaison. “A lot of it has to do with the lack of affordable housing here in Vancouver.”
Clark County takes action
Last winter, Clark County became one of 10 “anchor communities” as part of a flagship program coordinated by the statewide nonprofit organization A Way Home Washington that brings intensive support, resources and data collection for homeless youth ages 12 to 24. Walla Walla, which became an anchor community in 2018, reduced its number of homeless youth by half in the past year.
Part of the initiative is to build a By-Name List of every unaccompanied young person in the community. The list includes details like how long a person has been homeless, sleeping locations, race, ethnicity and gender identity.
“As a community, we are using this tool to have accurate information of our youth, while personalizing it and really bringing a humanistic perspective to it,” said Clark County Anchor Community Initiative Coordinator Terrell Berry. Berry expects Clark County’s list will be complete within the coming weeks.
Disproportionate impacts: LGBTQ and minority youth
As service providers work to address this issue, they also must take into account the wide diversity of youth they serve.
The first national survey on unaccompanied youth by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago in 2017 found African American youth have an 83 percent higher risk of experiencing homelessness compared with other races. LGBTQ youth had a 120 percent higher risk than their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts.
Berry, a Black man who experienced homelessness and housing instability as a teenager in California, has found that service providers and agencies often do not account for factors like generational trauma or the oppression of racism, he said.
“One thing that I learned being a Black male and also working in this field is, the systems aren’t broken. The systems are pretty much doing what they’re designed to do,” he said. “So the hill I die on is to redesign the systems and make them accessible for our BIPOC and LGBTQ and all our youth.”
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Ari thinks that for unaccompanied youth, family is often a factor contributing to their homelessness. “If you want to know why youth are homeless, you look at their parents. Especially LGBT youth,” he said. “They come from either poverty, drug or substance abuse, mental, physical or even sexual abuse. Just a complete lack of support.”
Ari has also found that parents sever ties with children for “the smallest things,” like sexual orientation, gender identity, and refusal to conform to certain religious or political ideologies. “People assume runaways are just kids or youth who are kicked out of their homes or are just misbehaving and parents can’t handle it anymore,” he said. “The reality is much worse.”
What’s still needed
Though Ari and McGant both made it out of homelessness, they each experienced traumas along the way that led them to advocate for better services going forward. Ari said he is grateful for his bed at the Share House men’s shelter, but his experience there is colored by the abuse he endured as a transgender man.
“I have screamed this from the rooftops and I’ll scream it from the rooftops a thousand more times: Clark County needs an LGBTQ youth shelter,” Ari said. “If I had just been at an LGBT-specific youth shelter from the beginning, I wouldn’t have been as deeply traumatized as I was.”
McGant thinks better access to mental health resources, such as more spaces where people experiencing homelessness can connect with each other, should be a priority for the county’s homeless youth.
“I always think that people can heal. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how young you are,” she said. “It takes who you’re around, the resources around you, having that safe space, community, family.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.