In 2021, more than 20,000 Oklahoma students were experiencing homelessness, disrupting their ability to learn and grow alongside classmates. Source: Oklahoma 2021 PiT Count
“Youth Homelessness” is a broad umbrella, encompassing children under 13, adolescents aged 13-17, and young adults 18-25, depending on the agency or program. Understanding this group is difficult due to differing, narrow definitions of homelessness and the difficulty of remaining in school while experiencing homelessness.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homelessness as living outside, in vehicles, in shelters, or in other places “not meant for habitation”. Schools include “hidden” situations like couch hopping and living in motels, but if a student drops out of school along the way, they’re no longer included. All caveats in mind, one national study conducted across 2016 and 2017 estimated that about 3.5 million young adults aged 18-25 experienced a form of homelessness in that time while about 700,000 youth ages 13-27 experienced homelessness. Half of those 18-25 and quarter of those 13-17 had couch-hopped during their experience.
Like adults, youth come to experience homelessness for a variety of complex reasons. For everyone, decades of persistent poverty and the nationwide shortage of affordable housing are key factors that underpin other experiences. Family conflict, intolerance of gender expression and sexuality, neglect, sexual abuse, and substance use all contribute to the experience of becoming homeless. Additionally, many young people experience homelessness for the first time alongside the rest of their family. Another key factor in these experiences is contact with foster care or the justice system.
National legislation called the McKinney-Vento Act attempts to address a few core issues that students face when experiencing homelessness. First, this legislation allows a student to continue attending school at their usual location even if the place they’re staying at the time does not fall within their school district. In those situations, schools are required to provide transportation to that student. If a student cannot produce the documentation typically required to enroll in school due to their homelessness, they are allowed to enroll and attend – even if they’ve missed deadlines. Finally, every school district is required to designate a liaison that identifies homeless students and helps connect them to needed services.
The primary resource in Tulsa for youth experiencing homelessness is Youth Services of Tulsa (YST). When a young person experiencing homelessness encounters an outreach team or drop-in center, intake processes automatically add them to a dynamic waitlist system that matches individuals to open beds when they are available. In addition, YST offers a transitional living program and partners with MHAOK to provide Permanent Supportive Housing to transitional age youth.
In addition to housing, Youth Services provides emergency shelter for youth aged 12-17, a drop-in center for those 16-24, and a variety of other programs designed to foster independence and support youth: health services, individual and family counseling, substance use counseling, employment support, juvenile justice re-entry support, and LGBTQ+ support. For youth 12-18 in crisis situations, Safe Place sites can be found all across Tulsa: any QuikTrip store, all fire stations, all libraries, any off duty EMSA ambulance, all Tulsa transit busses and vans, select Medwise urgent care clinics, and the Tulsa glassblowing school. These partners serve as a space where youth can get connected with trained volunteers to provide a ride to YST. From there, YST can help the youth figure out next steps. Youth can also access this support by texting “SAFE” and their location to 44357.
For youth who spent time in foster care during their adolescence, the Oklahoma Successful Adulthood Program (OKSA) is another great resource. They’re available to assist with housing, food access, education, employment, life skills, healthcare, and more. Youth and the adults in their lives can contact 1-800-397-2945 to connect with these resources.
Finally, for LGBTQ+ youth, Tulsa’s Equality Center provides weekly events where young people can meet others and build a network of support alongside other resources such as a health clinic and counseling.