Researchers at UC Berkeley’s Youth and Allies Against Homelessness, or YAAH, conducted a study to better understand how the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected unhoused youth and their ability to transition out of homelessness and into adulthood. YAAH released a report Wednesday to suggest how to better support this community in the future.
YAAH is a research group within Innovations for Youth, or i4Y, which is dedicated to spreading awareness on the structural factors of health for historically marginalized young people. The researchers in YAAH are graduate and undergraduate students who had either personal experiences of homelessness or hold a deep commitment to ending homelessness, especially among youth, according to co-director and co-founder of i4Y Dr. Colette Auerswald.
“Because young (unhoused) people want to transition to adulthood, they — just like you do, just like your classmates do — are going through the same transitions, but with a lot more obstacles,” Auerswald said. “And what happened with the pandemic is that those obstacles got a lot bigger. So that’s the big overall finding.”
In hopes of designing an inclusive study, Auerswald said YAAH collected information directly from unhoused youth in San Francisco and Alameda County through an online survey, as opposed to visiting several different shelters. Researchers also shared the survey via flyers and various social networks.
YAAH project team lead Jessica Wright said the report revealed disproportionate impacts on young people experiencing homelessness that differed from the general population, adding that young people faced increased obstacles in meeting and accessing basic needs.
“It kept them in a position of poverty and housing instability, impacting their access to education and their access to income, which ultimately kept them in the negative positions that they were in and impacted their ability to successfully transition to adulthood,” Wright said.
Auerswald said that without businesses or programs offering free Wi-Fi during the pandemic, many unhoused students lost internet access. Further, unhoused young people could no longer use their cell phones without places to charge them.
Unhoused young people also lost their access to basic needs such as sanitation, housing, food and water due to insufficient shelter services, according to Auerswald. She added that many students became homeless at the start of the pandemic, and one in five students were forced to drop out due to a loss of employment or decrease in wages. Auerswald also explained how people of this community felt left out and discriminated against because of the government’s response to public health and their inability to receive vaccinations.
“Homelessness is embedded in set historical reasons why some people experiencing homelessness more than others — family, poverty and racism — so many things,” Auerswald said. “There are some more short-term things that we can do, and then there are things that would take more time.”
YAAH’s proposed solutions to better support unhoused young people included guaranteed access to basic needs and making plans for disaster preparedness, from pandemics to fires and floods. Auerswald said, in addition to emergency housing, a range of sustainable housing options is necessary to accommodate young peoples’ living preferences. This unhoused population also needs access to health care services, especially those relating to mental health and substance use, she added.
Auerswald said that the unhoused youth community was uniquely devastated by the pandemic because they are often systematically left out of conversations regarding homelessness. Despite young people making up one in four of the homeless population, according to Auerswald, they receive a very small percentage of funding. Due to the scarcity in homelessness services, mostly those who are most visible and most complained about receive funding, which are adults and families.
“It’s critical that we all step up and (say) that we are outraged and we demand that change,” Auerswald said. “It’s not folks who are privileged. It’s the first gen folks, Black and brown kids, LGBTQ+ kids, those are the kids who are going to be most likely to end up homeless.”