Over the past eight years, housing insecurity has taken many forms for Juno St. Robbins. 

It’s been nights in the bunkbeds of Allegheny County’s shelters. Nights in a house that made him feel unsafe. Nights sleeping on an inflatable mattress in the attic of a three-bedroom home, with 12 roommates scattered throughout the rooms below. 

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These nights shaped his understanding of what constitutes homelessness. 

“To me, homelessness was literally somebody sitting on the street, not people who didn’t have a place,” said St. Robbins, 26. “I didn’t know what I know now.”

His experience is only a sliver of what homelessness and housing insecurity look like for young people across Allegheny County. 

After a decline throughout much of the past decade, data shows the number of people ages 14 through 25 using Allegheny County’s homelessness services increased by 27% from 2020 through 2022, which could reflect these services lifting their COVID-19 restrictions. The services include emergency shelters, bridge housing and street outreach programs. 

“We know that the pandemic caused a reduction in the number of people served in shelters due to some reduced capacity,” wrote Mark Bertolet, a spokesperson for the county’s Department of Human Services, in an email to PublicSource. He added that people across all age groups have been staying longer at shelters, which may have contributed to the initial drop in the number of people using services as there was less turnover of beds.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development selected the county to become a Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program community in 2020, which Bertolet said has “likely been helpful” in keeping service utilization numbers from reaching pre-pandemic levels. 

But many young people across the county are experiencing invisible forms of housing insecurity not captured within these services, like couch-surfing, living in hotels and staying in dangerously overcrowded homes. 

“It’s when they’re absolutely destitute that they show up to a shelter with all of their bags and belongings, and that’s when folks have really hit the bottom,” said Yodit Betru, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work. 

Mirroring nationwide trends, racial disparities persist among all age groups utilizing the county’s homelessness services, with Black people accounting for 54% of those using these services in 2022. The disparities are heightened among young people. In 2022, 71% of people ages 14 through 25 using county homelessness services were Black.

A chore board hangs in the Familylinks shelter for 18-25 year olds, Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Crawford-Roberts. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
A chore board hangs in the Familylinks shelter for 18-25 year olds, Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Crawford-Roberts. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Young people begin experiencing homelessness for a variety of reasons. Due to the very nature of being young, they have limited credit histories, employment histories and rental experience, all of which makes it difficult to secure housing. Once they become housing insecure, the unpredictable living conditions can make it difficult to pursue work and educational opportunities — resources often critical for finding permanent housing. The stigmatization of homelessness leads many to isolate themselves, worsening mental health conditions and hindering their ability to maintain positive relationships. 

“It definitely weighs on someone’s mental health,” said Aimee Plowman, director of transition age youth services for Auberle, a nonprofit serving youth and families in Pittsburgh and McKeesport. “That instability, that uncertainty — how well can you sleep if you’re not in a stable place and don’t know what’s happening?”

As young people across the county navigate through homelessness, local organizations are helping them access resources to meet their basic needs and build futures beyond housing insecurity. 

31% to 46% of people aging out of foster care experience homelessness

The roots of youth homelessness — especially among non-white youth — can often be traced back to systemic inequalities, Betru said. She points to issues like the overrepresentation of Black children in the child welfare system and findings indicating that Black children are more likely to be referred to punitive systems while white children are referred to treatment. 

“We haven’t done right by our Black children, so it shows up when they finally emerge as young adults — if they haven’t already been incarcerated,” she added.

Young adults who have aged out of the foster care system face a heightened risk of experiencing homelessness, with one study finding that 31% to 46% of young adults aging out of the system experience homelessness by age 26.

“A lot of people take for granted the things you learned by watching the people that you lived with, and sometimes young people who have foster care experience haven’t always been able to watch their caregiver provide those things,” Plowman said. This includes everything from budgeting to home maintenance skills, work readiness preparation and learning to drive, she added.

Chasity “CC” Cook entered the foster care system following their mother’s death — less than a year after their father’s — when they were 17. At 18, CC entered the county’s Independent Living Program, and although they received help learning skills for self-sufficiency, it came at a price. They were paired with caseworkers who often made them feel judged, and as CC conformed to the caseworkers’ expectations to avoid criticism, they felt like they “lost” their sense of identity.

“I didn’t want to be seen as a troubled child,” said CC, now 23. “I’m not a bad person for wanting to do something different from what they told me.”

Young adults exiting the carceral system are also at a heightened risk of becoming housing insecure, said Davonte Johnson, founder of the Young Voices Action Collective [YVAC]. 

“People might expect that it’s like an airport arrival — there’s somebody with a sign waiting outside for you,” Johnson said. “But that’s not the reality for a lot of our young people. The reality is they were already fending for themselves when they went in.”

Youth in the juvenile justice system often experience educational disruptions and exit with juvenile delinquency records, which can make it hard to find work. They may not have a home to return to because incarceration can fracture — or entirely destroy — a young person’s support network. Due to the discrimination they’re likely to face from public housing authorities and private property owners, they may struggle to find affordable housing on their own. 

Many young people face housing insecurity because it’s not safe — either physically or emotionally — for them to remain at their current residence, even if it’s their only stable shelter option. This particularly impacts LGBTQ+ youth and those living in abusive environments.

“They’re living in really prejudiced or oppressive systems where they know they’re not welcome at home, so they leave and no one is looking for them,” said Betru, whose experience includes consulting for a local human services provider and running a shelter that provided transitional housing for women and children. “That, to me, is one of the saddest things.”

Housing services often divide clients based on their biological sex, and this can create additional barriers for people whose gender identities do not match the sex assigned to them at birth.

“If you’re a person in any phase of transitioning, or want to be in a space that’s accepting or made for folks who are queer, we don’t have enough services or spaces for that,” Betru said of the U.S. emergency housing system. “They’re even more at risk.”

69% of youth experiencing homelessness have mental health difficulties

When young people become housing insecure, they often blame themselves and feel ashamed, Betru said. “They don’t have enough other loving adults or attachment figures to tell them, ‘Hey, it’s contextual, it’s society, it’s the way in which we haven’t shown up for you,’” she added. 

As they cope with this feeling of shame, many tend to withdraw. 

“When you isolate, you get worse, you get sicker,” Betru said. “The solution, often, to these things is more connection, more community. But unfortunately, the way that the symptoms play out is that you feel more depressed and worse off, and probably want to have less contact with people.”

Juno St. Robbins, 26, is silhouetted against a wall in the Pittsburgh-area group home he lives in on Sunday, April 30, 2023. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

St. Robbins first came to Pittsburgh when he was about 16, moving from his childhood home in Ohio, to live with his then-partner’s family. He’s diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and, at 18, he began experiencing more severe symptoms, noting that his mood began “going down.” Eventually, he felt so overwhelmed that he packed his belongings into a trash bag and left. 

The stigma associated with schizoaffective disorder, compounded with that of homelessness, weighed heavily on St. Robbins and made him afraid to let his guard down around others for fear they’d view him as dangerous.

“I felt alone,” he added. “I had to be protective all the time. I had to guard myself. I felt tense. I felt like I had to defend myself.”

This fear would often manifest as a physical feeling of tightness in his chest, similar to the onset of a panic attack. 

When young adults become housing insecure, they often adopt a prolonged “survival mindset,” where, by necessity, their attention becomes entirely focused on where they’ll next find shelter, food, water and hygiene resources, leaving them with little bandwidth to process their emotions and trauma. 

A survival mindset is only meant to be a fleeting state for the nervous system. Maintaining this unrelenting stress puts people at risk for physiological issues, including early death. It can also drive young adults to rely on potentially harmful coping mechanisms, which can lead to issues like substance use disorders, Betru said. 

The pressure to find housing can also leave young people vulnerable to becoming victims of human trafficking or violence. 

“They may be carrying a weapon to be safe,” Betru said. “But what happens when you have a weapon is you’re more likely to have it used against you.” 

Johnson said lacking affordable housing for young people is “state-sanctioned violence.”

“It’s not our fault that we’re here,” Johnson said. “There’s a system at play here that continues to not invest in us, and now we’re in another generation that’s responding to that lack of investment.”

The first steps toward meeting needs

Although housing insecurity often made him feel a deep loneliness, St. Robbins remembers feeling a sense of belonging for one of the first times in his life while staying at the Downtown Outreach Center and Shelter [DOCS], which Familylinks operates exclusively for clients ages 18 through 25.

“I got to hang out with people who are cool and like-minded, and had similar experiences,” he added. 

Living in a congregate setting can present challenges for young people experiencing homelessness, including a lack of privacy. For St. Robbins, following the rules at shelters like DOCS felt overwhelming. 

Lisa Trunick, Familylinks’ senior program manager, said just coming to a shelter can be a “trauma in and of itself” for young people.

“Sometimes you might see folks struggling with their mental health even more after they present to shelter,” Trunick said. “Our hope is that we’re able to address some of those things with on-site services.” 

DOCS was recently renovated to expand its capacity to 26 clients and update common spaces. To improve privacy, the renovation included shifting the shelter’s sleeping accommodations from two dormitories of bunkbeds to 12 bedrooms, where clients either live by themselves or with up to two roommates.

One of the triple bedrooms in the Familylinks shelter for 18-to-25 year olds, Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Crawford-Roberts. The shelter has 12 individual bedrooms ranging from singles to triples. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Familylinks focuses on first meeting young adults’ basic needs, then helping them work toward personal goals, including pursuing permanent housing, education and work opportunities. As part of its approach, Familylinks teaches clients skills for living on their own — like budgeting and preparing balanced meals — and provides wraparound services, including a health clinic and connections to education and employment opportunities.

Young people are permitted to stay at the shelter for up to 60 days — unless they’re granted an extension — and some leave having signed a lease for an apartment with a fellow client, said Lauren Galletta, director of development and outreach for Familylinks. 

A community where ‘they see themselves’

Johnson’s team at YVAC is helping young people navigate through housing insecurity by providing rental assistance, cash assistance and mutual aid. They also offer transitional housing for a handful of young adults at their Freedom House in McKeesport, which Johnson described as a “sacred” space that doubles as an “organizing hub for young revolutionaries.”

With membership reserved for people ages 26 or younger, YVAC has created a community of young activists who deeply empathize with one another’s experiences. 

“They see themselves, and then they see the potential of where they could be, what they could do,” Johnson said.

Central to YVAC’s advocacy is improving conditions for other youth facing housing insecurity — whether that’s helping to prevent evictions, hold predatory landlords to account or advocate for the creation of more affordable housing options.

“Our work is derived out of the state of young people — what young people say their needs are, what young people say their issues are,” Johnson said. “There cannot be a sustainable future until young people are put at the forefront of life decisions.”

Building a stronger future

During CC’s first time at Auberle’s 412 Youth Zone, they dipped a thin brush in white paint, adding a quote to the “412” mural slowly taking shape on the wall. 

“Be strong! Be kind! Be unique! Be YOU!” their quote reads.

Chasity “CC” Cooks points to a quote they painted as part of a mural inside of Auberle’s 412 Youth Zone in downtown Pittsburgh on May 1, 2023. (Photo by Amelia Winger/PublicSource)

Amid Auberle’s youth housing programs, the Youth Zone provides programming and workshops to help people ages 16 through 23 learn practical skills for independent living, including assistance learning to drive, courses in renter preparedness and job interview preparation. The goal is to create a comfortable space where young people can escape the pressure of the survival mindset, focusing instead on pursuing goals and self-discovery.  

“Even though all of their problems aren’t solved, they get to have a meal, sit down, relax — it’s a safe space and you can let your guard down a little bit,” Plowman said. 

When CC came to the Youth Zone at 18, it was the first space they heard the words “I’m so proud of you” since their parents passed away. Through working with youth coaches and participating in therapy, CC built the confidence to pursue their lifelong interest in art, and they’re currently preparing to move to San Francisco to study animation next school year. 

“Everybody else told me, ‘It’s not going to work’ or ‘Everything is going to fall apart,’” CC said. “But my coaches here told me, ‘You just have to go for it, you’ve got to believe in yourself.’”

During St. Robbins’ time with the Youth Zone, he recalled completing scavenger hunts of resources scattered across downtown Pittsburgh, drinking milkshakes during summer trips and hanging out with peers during holiday parties. He remembers once completing a “gender-bread man” activity that encouraged him to explore his gender identity for the first time. 

Through these activities, he finally began to learn about himself as a person — his sense of self became untethered from his experience with housing insecurity. 

“I’m a very curious person,” St. Robbins said. “I’m gentle. I can adapt, and I can change. I’m not going to be stuck in one spot forever — I can grow, and that’s OK.”

Juno St. Robbins, 26, holds a bear made from his late father’s pajamas, on Sunday, April 30, 2023, at St. Robbins’ group home in Pittsburgh. He says the object is one that makes him feel more at “home” as he moves between residences. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

In the years since he aged out of the Youth Zone’s programming, he’s used the momentum he gained to continue exploring his identity. 

He’s taking two courses at the Community College of Allegheny County about literature and anthropology. He wants to get back into wrestling, and volunteer with EMS and fire services — two ways of honoring his father’s legacy. And he wants to pursue activism to promote the rights of marginalized communities, including people experiencing homelessness, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ+ community. 

“I want to help people,” he said, “like people help me.”

Amelia Winger is PublicSource’s health reporter with a focus on mental health. She can be reached at amelia@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ameliawinger.

This reporting has been made possible through the Staunton Farm Mental Health Reporting Fellowship and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

This story was fact-checked by Punya Bhasin.

Resources

  • Big Burgh connects users to services for housing, food, health and well-being based on their demographic information. 
  • The Allegheny Link is the entrypoint to the county’s continuum of care, helping connect people to services like emergency shelter, rental assistance and screenings for long-term housing programs.
  • Proud Haven operates a shelter for people ages 18 through 30 who identify as trans or nonbinary. TransYOUniting provides mutual aid to Pittsburgh’s trans community. Together, the two organizations run the QMNTY Center, a drop-in center for youth and adults with resources like food, clothing and hygiene products.
  • Auberle provides short-term housing, rapid rehousing and emergency shelter through services like their Housing Options Promoting Empowerment [HOPE] program. At the 412 Youth Zone, the organization helps youth meet basic needs and develop skills for independent living.  
  • Familylinks operates an emergency shelter for teens and adults, along with providing services for rental assistance, case management, life skills development and assistance obtaining education and employment.  
  • YVAC connects youth with resources to meet their basic needs and advocacy opportunities. 
  • ACTION-Housing’s MyPlace program helps connect young people to services for rapid rehousing, supportive housing, educational resources and employment opportunities, with the goal of enabling participants “to live independent, self-sufficient lives.”
  • Amid various initiatives to support the educational needs of children experiencing homelessness, the Homeless Children’s Education Fund’s Teen Outreach Program provides young people with one-on-one support in meeting their basic needs and achieving education goals. 

Our process:

Reporting on homelessness requires journalists to adhere to standards of accuracy and fairness while mitigating harm, avoiding retraumatization and respecting privacy and agency.

In preparation for this story, PublicSource journalists reviewed resources including Street Sense Media’s guide to reporting on homelessness. To sum up Street Sense Media’s guidelines, we sought to give people living in shelters or tents the same respect we would give sources who live in stable housing.

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photo of amelia winder

Amelia Winger is a health reporter for PublicSource, with a focus on mental health. She is telling solutions-oriented stories that combine human experiences with broader context about data and policies....