Why We Must Protect Young People from Homelessness Now

As past economic crises show, insufficient action today could all but ensure that high school and college graduates will struggle with housing insecurity as they age.

A personal commencement event held in Des Moines. Over the course of eight hours, graduates came back to school in their caps and gowns for their diplomas, awards, photos and a walks across the stage. Photo by Phil Roeder via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A young graduate wearing a green cap and gown and a mask waits for his name to be called. A white bear shows in the background. Graduates might face housing insecurity due to the coronavirus recession.

A personal commencement event held in Des Moines. Over the course of eight hours, graduates came back to school in their caps and gowns for their diplomas, awards, photos and a walks across the stage. Photo by Phil Roeder via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Given the unprecedented damage the COVID-19 pandemic has already inflicted on our economy, it’s urgent that we adapt to the shifting needs of our communities and to those who are most vulnerable. We must especially plan to protect recent high school and college graduates, who will almost certainly face long-term economic insecurity.

The crisis of older adult homelessness may be a particularly useful lens through which to understand how critical it will be to adapt to the increased vulnerability of the younger generation. And considering the parallels in economic challenges between these two generations, it’s increasingly clear that insufficient action at this moment could all but ensure that today’s youth will struggle with housing insecurity at an advanced age.

Last year, researchers at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy examined how entering the labor force during an economic downturn, whether as a high school or college graduate, can lead to significant socioeconomic, physical, and mental health impacts, including an earlier-than-expected death. These impacts are bound to be worse for Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color (BIPOC) due to the ever-present legacy of racial inequality in the U.S. Unless our policy response to this pandemic is drastically different from how we responded to the 2008 financial crisis, this crisis will only widen the already-dramatic racial wealth gap, which compounds the risk of financial catastrophe for BIPOC households. This means that there will be both short-term and long-term negative effects for BIPOC communities. Black and Latinx communities are already experiencing some of the worst effects of the coronavirus pandemic on both health and economic security.

Late Baby Boomer Cohort and Coming of Age

There are striking parallels between what many older adults currently experiencing homelessness and poverty faced when they made the transition into adulthood, and those faced today by vulnerable youth. By “older adults,” we generally mean individuals age 55 and up (or 50 and up in a number of research studies). This population, which has increasingly fallen into homelessness since the early 2010s and whose presence in the population experiencing homelessness will have tripled by the end of this decade, largely came of age during another period when young people in the U.S. grappled with the realities of prolonged economic crisis and a drastically insufficient social safety net. 

Several years ago, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania began noticing an important trend when examining data on single-adult homeless shelter participants in New York City over the preceding 22 years, along with decennial census data. The data showed that there was a distinct group of individuals, disproportionately people of color, born in the latter part of the baby boom generation—between 1954 and 1967—who “had the misfortune of coming of age during the double-dip recessions of the late ’70s and early ’80s” and who were never able to recover from the economic challenges they faced as they entered the labor force. Researchers found that this birth cohort was at a significantly higher risk for homelessness. Although some of the cohort members appeared to experience homelessness at an early age, an alarming number became homeless for the first time after age 50 and are continuing to experience homelessness in rapidly increasing numbers.

For this late baby-boom cohort, graduating from high school in the 1970s and early 1980s meant confronting a terrible situation in the housing and labor markets: rent costs were increasing while wages for workers without college degrees or specialized formal training remained stagnant, and unemployment rates for young people were growing dramatically. As the Stanford researchers confirmed, young people who start their working lives during a recession, including those who do go to college, “may not only start with a lower-paying job but be permanently stuck on a downward-shifted economic trajectory.”

As our current understanding of racial inequality might suggest, this worst-case scenario was not equally bad for all groups. Unemployment rates in the 1970s for Black youth were significantly higher than those for white youth, and by 1979, the gap had widened to over 20 percentage points, according to a paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. This racial unemployment gap has been apparent since the National Bureau of Labor Statistics first began tracking it in 1972 and during the vast majority of the years when the late baby boom cohort was entering the labor force. Across the general population this gap translated to an unemployment rate for Black workers that was two times or more the rate of white workers, which remains consistent to this day, and this is regardless of gender, age, educational attainment, and veteran status.

Safety-Net Reductions and Great Recession

The persistence of racial disparities like those seen in unemployment rates are only further indication that these are outcomes of structural racism and systemic inequality, and are among other catastrophic policy failures that have impacted BIPOC in a multitude of ways: mass incarceration of African Americans in the U.S., continued educational inequalities due to ongoing racial segregation, systematic underfunding of public schools in communities of color, and the deleterious effects of environmental racism and lack of access to affordable or no-cost health care. But added to the challenges faced by the late baby boom cohort was the rapid growth of politically popular anti-welfare sentiment and reduced benefits and access to crucial safety net programs, culminating in mid-1990s welfare reform policy, which researchers believe may have been responsible for an overall increase in deep poverty in the U.S.

Older adults both within and outside the late baby boom cohort were dealt yet another economic blow during the Great Recession, which for some became their entryway into prolonged housing instability and for others remains a significant risk factor that places them one financial emergency away from losing their housing. The wage stagnation they faced decades earlier made saving especially difficult, especially when it came to retirement savings. Additionally, low-income older adults are more likely than other groups to “hold most of their wealth in home equity, compared to higher earning groups,” according to a 2016 report by Justice in Aging. This means that they were also more vulnerable to the housing market crash. By 2010, these homeowners had lost over 30 percent of their net worth as a result. More low-income older adults who previously owned a home were now pursuing rental housing and newly susceptible to the many uncertainties and rising costs in the rental housing market that continue to this day.

For over a decade, homeless service providers across the continuum of care have seen a visible increase in older adults experiencing homelessness, and grappling with this surge often requires a comprehensive understanding of the complex needs of individuals who are aging while homeless. They are more likely to have a disabling physical or mental health condition, which is rapidly worsened by being homeless, and have such a high prevalence of premature aging and geriatric conditions that researchers now use the phrase “50 is the new 75” to describe the health profile of older adults experiencing homelessness. The pathways into older adult homelessness encompass more than the effects of the late-baby boom cohort, but the uniquely complex and difficult circumstances that they have faced throughout early adulthood are among the many indications that this population’s housing crisis is the culmination of years of unresolved systemic inequalities and massive policy failures.

The Current Situation

A coronavirus global recession is now underway and the enormity of the crisis is already breathtaking: for example, the State of Oregon Employment Department reported that 412,000 people filed for traditional unemployment insurance (not including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) in Oregon since the state began mandating public health and safety measures in response to the pandemic, double the total number of jobs lost statewide during the entirety of the Great Recession. We can only imagine that the numbers will grow beyond anything we could have ever predicted. But even before COVID-19, despite plentiful evidence of economic recovery for most, Oregon residents of color and those living in rural areas were still feeling the effects of the last recession, and struggling to access stable employment and housing.

The virus itself is already taking a disproportionate toll on lives in BIPOC communities due to long-standing inequities in health access as well as environmental racism. Unfortunately, recessions are another situation where racial inequality ensures worsened effects for Black Americans and other people of color. Most worryingly, the socioeconomic fallout from a crisis of this magnitude is likely to roll back decades of progress in combating poverty, especially when it comes to the disproportionate rates of poverty for Black and Latinx individuals and families.

In Multnomah County, Oregon, the poverty rate among youth ages 18 to 24 in 2019 was twice that of the general population and the rate for youth of color was worse than that of white youth. It’s clear that the new recession will exacerbate their vulnerability as they enter the job market, and that this impact will be felt immediately, regardless of their level of educational attainment. But because many of the policy failures that have fueled the older adult homelessness crisis have yet to be fixed and have in fact worsened, the health and socioeconomic outlook for this generation in 35 to 40 years is alarming, to say the least. The researchers who identified the birth cohort among late baby boomers in the early 2010s seemed to acknowledge this possibility, as they wrote, “Without adequate attention to their labor market needs and other social welfare concerns, another cohort of young adults with sustained risk for homelessness may emerge.”

To avoid failing this new generation the way that a complex and interconnected set of policies and practices failed an older generation, we will need to adopt policies that target the areas where racial disparities have left BIPOC individuals and families more vulnerable to this pandemic and subsequent economic fallout. Along with implementing long-overdue protections and expansions of affordable housing programs for low-income individuals and families, we must prioritize assistance and programming to prevent the lasting scars of disadvantages that will otherwise compound the effects of this recession on the long-term stability of today’s young labor market entrants.

Some of these recommendations must directly target the economic needs of youth, and would especially affect the future of young Black and Latinx workers:

  • Ensure that CARES Act expansions of unemployment benefits and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance are implemented swiftly and expanded to new job entrants;
  • Ensure the inclusion of youth who are already vulnerable due to homelessness, disabilities, or otherwise lack consistent access to safety and supports in all recovery programs targeted to youth;
  • Ensure that interruptions to education are minimal and that additional schooling is made more accessible as even a year or two more of education can benefit labor market entrants in a recession.

Other essential actions for policymakers would provide crucial assistance to all generations: ensuring access to affordable and no-cost health care; providing paid sick, family, and medical leave for all workers; providing more direct cash assistance to households; waiving the repayments of consumer debt and taking comprehensive action on student loan debt; and placing and extending moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures to prevent an immediate rise of homelessness and housing insecurity.

We Will Face a Choice

For advocates who have been working on the front lines of the homelessness crisis, especially those who focus on a specific subpopulation, it may be a particularly overwhelming time to think beyond our own specialized area of work. Though we often collaborate on solutions to benefit everyone experiencing housing insecurity and poverty, service programs and policy interventions are often hampered by information silos. The global outbreak and ensuing crisis of COVID-19 requires us to adapt in ways that we may not have ever believed possible, and one of the most effective changes we can make immediately is to acknowledge the interconnected nature of our populations, systems, and particular areas of focus. In Oregon, there are a number of examples of effective cross-organizational policy collaboration, some focusing on statewide housing policy and racial and economic justice for BIPOC, and most notably an alliance between social services providers and businesses that mobilized to win passage of a game-changing income and business tax ballot measure last month to raise an estimated $248 million per year for homeless services in the Portland metro area over the next 10 years,

The United Nations’ early report on the global pandemic response states that once we contend with the immediate aftermath of the crisis, “we will face a choice—go back to the world we knew before or deal decisively with those issues that make us all unnecessarily vulnerable to this and future crises.” Unless we adopt an intergenerational perspective and approach to responding to the newly intensified racial inequality and economic insecurity our communities face, we may find that the next generation is even more vulnerable to the crises of homelessness and housing insecurity than the ones that came before them.

An earlier version of this article was first published in Street Roots.

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