Nevada County is battling a fast-growing, hard-to-see and often-overlooked problem that threatens our youth: homelessness.
Hundreds of children and young adults are experiencing housing instability — either homeless or could be at any minute — in our community. They are couch-surfing with family members or friends; others are sleeping in vehicles.
But because of our location, a rural community with small cities surrounded by the beauty of nature, the unpleasant reality goes largely unnoticed.
Youth experiencing homelessness are easier to identify in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and many other large cities in the state. Homeless camps are in city parks, on downtown sidewalks and along state highways.
In Nevada County, it’s harder to see, let alone identify and determine the extent of the problem. But the critical issue is here, and increasing.
Almost 370 students, or about one student for every elementary and high school classroom, were experiencing homelessness in Nevada County in 2018, the latest data available. And those are just the students who are willing to share their heart-breaking situation.
The actual number of children and young adults experiencing homelessness is likely much higher in Nevada County, especially with the Covid pandemic that has exacerbated economic inequality during the past 16 months.
Bright Futures for Youth’s SAFE (Stability, Access, Foundation and Empowerment) program is committed to finding and helping these youth.
When the SAFE program started in 2019, the goal was to connect with 12 young people per year. We’re currently helping more than 50 children and young adults — those under 25 years old.
SAFE ensures they have clothing, food, health care and counseling, if needed. The most basic of needs are only the beginning. SAFE helps youth experiencing homelessness complete applications for government assistance programs, from financial aid for college and food stamps to much-needed documents such as birth certificates. Our efforts help them today, and teach them to be more self-sufficient tomorrow, from attending college to finding work.
But the greatest challenge is finding youth experiencing homelessness consistent and safe housing, such as an accessory dwelling unit behind a house or a room to rent. There just isn’t enough housing for youth in Nevada County. The community must work together to find affordable housing to help young people.
Because when you are bouncing around between housing, long-term planning is secondary to the more pressing situation of finding a place to sleep.
Youth experiencing homelessness are focused on their immediate needs, even when they have big dreams for their future. Bottom line: You can’t think of tomorrow when you’re worried about today.
Unfortunately, it’s also how society views solutions to solving homelessness. Certainly, more emergency shelters for youth and other resources are needed.
But all too often, the cause of homelessness is overlooked. Half of adults experiencing homelessness endured housing instability as youth. It’s a cycle that we must break.
Much like any health-related issue — such as child abuse, diabetes or heart disease — prevention as early as possible is the key. We must address the issues that lead to youth experiencing homelessness.
Bright Futures for Youth’s SAFE program and other organizations are working hard to address the issue — including Nevada County Superintendent of Schools, Foster Youth Services, the County of Nevada, Nevada County Regional Continuum of Care, Community Beyond Violence, Children’s Behavioral Health, Victor Community Services, Stanford Sierra Youth and Families and the Youth Action Board. Bright Futures for Youth, established with the merger between The Friendship Club and NEO a year ago, offers year-round academic, social and emotional support.
But we can’t do this alone. Youth experiencing homelessness is a challenge for the community, and we need your help. Financial support is always much appreciated, but also please educate others about our efforts and our being a valuable resource.
Together, we can make certain that youth experiencing homelessness are aware of and have the resources they need.
This column was written by Aurora Packard, MSW, ACSW, SAFE program director. SAFE is a Bright Futures for Youth program focused on addressing the needs of youth experiencing homelessness.