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By Cynthia Arneson

Imagine being a 17-year-old high school senior and finding yourself homeless and on your own. It is a stark existence fraught with despair.
There are currently more than 2 million homeless youth in the United States, with Michigan ranking sixth in the U.S.

We do not evade this reality in our part of Michigan. There were 323 unaccompanied homeless youth reported last year in Newaygo, Oceana, Lake, Mason, Manistee, Missaukee and Wexford counties.

Our youth, our children, need stability to thrive. Homelessness means instability.

There are more than 36,000 homeless children in high, middle and elementary schools in Michigan, according to the University of Michigan. There were more than 63,000 people who experienced homelessness last year, according to the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness.

For youth without a parent, guardian or home, each day means spending a significant amount of time trying to find somewhere to stay for the night. They need to find someone who will put them up.

The homeless youth in rural locales like ours are not quite as obvious as people sleeping on sidewalks you might see in places like Grand Rapids or Muskegon or even Big Rapids. Homeless young people sleep in tents, live in abandoned buildings or vehicles, or are, for most, continually couch surfing.

Two local agencies are focused on helping homeless and runaway youth ages 12 to 21 years old: Staircase Youth Services and the Youth Attention Center. Based in Ludington, Staircase Youth Services serves Lake, Mason, Manistee, Missaukee, Oceana and Wexford counties. Based in Big Rapids, the Youth Attention Center serves Newaygo, Mecosta and Osceola counties.

Both boast years assisting at-risk youth, with Staircase Youth Services established in 1979 and the Youth Attention Center in 1977. Both work with school districts and other agencies such as TrueNorth Community Services to assist youth and families in crisis.

A recent survey by Staircase Youth Services and the Youth Attention Center of 287 area homeless youth provides insights into why they are on the streets scraping for an existence.

The No. 1 reason is family dysfunction. Those situations include parents addicted to drugs, abuse and neglect, difficulties with blended families, overcrowded households and what they term unfair rules.

Many shared they became homeless because their views differed greatly from their parents and they felt unaccepted. We also find youth identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) are six time more likely to experience homelessness.

Youth also become homeless when their parents lose housing. Family poverty often results in parents moving away, and leaving older youth to fend for themselves. There are also youth aging out of foster care with nowhere to go.

The fact is 17- to 21-year-olds often become homeless through no fault of their own. A lack of family support and life skills places these young people at risk for sex trafficking, drug use and chronic homelessness.

Staircase Youth Services and the Youth Attention Center help our homeless youth find stable housing through host home programs. This allows youth to stay in their communities.

Host homes are paid a monthly stipend to provide housing, food and guidance. The youth, their case manager and host parents work side by side to assist the youth in reaching their goals. They gain educational and employment support, life skills training, access to community resources and the support they need to foster their positive development.

At Staircase Youth Services and the Youth Attention Center, the biggest successes we see are when our youth graduate from high school, go on to college or trade school, find steady employment and leave our programs feeling supported by their community.

A supportive embrace is what our youth, homeless or not, need from us. We need to extend a helping hand; not a cold shoulder.

Cynthia Arneson is executive director of Staircase Youth Services, a Ludington nonprofit that provides supportive, preventive, and homeless services for youth and families at-risk or in crisis. TrueNorth Community Services, Staircase Youth
Services and the Youth Attention Center are helping raise awareness of homeless and hungry youth, adults and families during Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week, which is November 10 to 18. November is Homelessness Awareness Month.

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