Imagine being 17 years old without a parent or guardian or a permanent place to call home when housing costs are soaring, and high inflation is driving up the cost of food and other necessities. When well-educated, financially stable Washingtonians are tightening their financial belts because of the uncertainty, it is a frightening time to be trying to figure things out on the District’s streets. 

There are more than 1,300 youth experiencing homelessness in the District. And young people of color and those identifying as LGBTQ+ are disproportionately represented. 

Casa Ruby’s closure in July put these District youth at more risk of hate crimes, domestic violence, and sexual assault. Their displacement has made them more vulnerable to drug use and sex work to get by. Questions remain about the District’s plan to ensure continuity of care to meet their unique needs, provide mental health support, and prevent another bout of homelessness. 

The closure exacerbates the current gap in services for LGBTQ youth. Beyond providing shelter, this group of young people now lacks access to the specialized, trauma-informed, and culturally competent services essential to producing positive outcomes and an opportunity to connect with mentors who understand their journey. 

The pandemic has exacerbated mental illness among youth experiencing homelessness. One-in-four report feeling down, depressed or hopeless nearly every day since the start of the pandemic. In this District, there is an equity issue.

Currently, there is a lack of accessible, youth-friendly, and culturally competent mental health care. This is a major barrier to long-term stability for youth experiencing homelessness in a city where the average one-bedroom apartment costs $1,800.

There is a strong link between mental illness and homelessness. People with mental illness have more difficulty sustaining stable housing and employment, which can lead to homelessness — and a vicious cycle. Moreover, people experiencing homelessness encounter social exclusion, reduced access to treatment resources, stress, violence, and trauma, which can all contribute to adverse mental health, ultimately hindering their ability to overcome housing instability and mental illness. 

Successfully identifying and treating mental health issues youth young adults face is the key to lifelong emotional and mental well being and achieving racial equity. This is especially critical in D.C., where it is becoming increasingly difficult for well-prepared young people to become fully independent, successful adults.  

We need to meet our youth where they are if we are to improve outcomes. Opening behavioral health clinics and providing services and clinics where young people congregate will help — especially in addressing trauma. With famous rappers and other young people normalizing therapy, this approach will increase the use of these services and ultimately improve behavioral health outcomes among participating youth—improving the District’s health overall. 

The D.C. Department of Behavioral Health is currently trying to find supplemental federal money to increase support. But if Mayor Bowser, the D.C. Council, and other agency leaders fail to increase permanent mental health support for homeless youth, we must hold them accountable.

Rachel White is senior youth policy analyst at DC Action and DC Youth Economic Justice and Housing Coalition

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