Interview: CEO Walter Philips
Walter Philips, CEO at San Diego Youth Services, talks about National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, the rising number of homeless youth and more. To help raise awareness of this critical issue, he is preparing to hit the streets on Nov. 20 and run 50K across the county to many of our locations.
You’re getting set to run 50K across San Diego County. Why?
To bring awareness to the fact that here in America’s Finest City we have children and youth suffering from poverty, hunger, abuse, sexual exploitation, homelessness and more. And to let the community know what we are doing at San Diego Youth Services to make a difference for these youth.
How many homeless youth are there?
Counting homeless youth is very difficult as they don’t all fit the profile of a stereotypical homeless person. Plus, the numbers we do have vastly undercount the number of youth that are homeless and unstably housed. What we do know from our most recent Point in Time Count is that the number of homeless youth counted increased by 39 percent in San Diego over the past year, totaling 1,150 youth, the vast majority of these homeless youth are between the ages of 18-24.
Why are they homeless? Don’t they have families?
One of the biggest myths I’ve heard is that youth are homeless because they want to live on the streets. There are various reasons why a youth becomes homeless and I’ve yet to meet one youth who has told me “I love the streets and enjoy being homeless.” Reasons include family conflict and rejection. This is especially true for LGBTQ youth. Abuse, domestic violence and other trauma in the home also leads youth to being homeless. Economic problems that result in the family becoming homeless also contribute to youth ending up couch surfing or on the streets. Death, illness or some other tragedy in the family may also cause youth to have nowhere to turn but the streets.
What is the biggest challenge for homeless youth?
Staying safe from being victimized on the streets is a huge challenge for youth. These youth are very emotionally, psychologically and physically vulnerable and are at high risk of being taken advantage of by predators such as pimps, drug dealers and others. In addition, staying connected to some sense of normal life, like school and friends, is extremely difficult for youth in an unstable housing situation or actually living on the streets.
Isn’t there any kind of county or state governmental assistance?
For youth who have had some involvement in the system, foster care or probation, there are definitely a lot of resources available to help prevent youth from becoming homeless. SDYS partners closely with the County of San Diego’s Health and Human Services Agency and Juvenile Probation to offer housing and support services for these “system” youth. However, for youth who have not been involved in the system, there has been very few governmental resources. For example, the state of California has only provided $1 million in annual funding statewide for the past 30 years. But there has been recent movement and the state, county and city are beginning to become aware that something has to be done. California approved $10 million in new funding this year for homeless youth, with $2.5 million coming to San Diego.
Where do homeless youth fit into all the news we are seeing about the homeless?
Homeless youth are for the most part invisible to the general population. Most of the attention given to the homeless issue by the news is on chronic homeless adults, homeless veterans and homeless families. Very little if any attention is given to homeless youth. That’s why we are having a Runaway and Homeless Youth Walk and Rally on November 8th! Come join us and spread the word as we recognize National Runaway and Homeless Youth Awareness Month.
Can we solve youth homelessness?
Yes we can! However, we have to make solving this crisis a priority and dedicate the resources necessary to put an end to youth homelessness. One youth on the streets is one too many. It will take all of us working together to ensure that our youth have a future and hope for a brighter tomorrow.