Thursday, December 05, 2013

Behind the Brain: Understanding Youth Homelessness

Letter from Dan Brannen, the former Executive Director of Covenant House DC.

Covenant House Youth
Puberty, adolescence and young adulthood are, indeed, three of the most life transforming times of our lives. These developmental stages mark the beginning of our sexual maturation, the final transformation of our brains (and associated hormonal and neurotransmitting systems) and the beginning of a new social and biological construct – adulthood. The amygdala (emotions), the hippocampus (memories) and the corpus callosum (mental perception) are three integral parts of the brain that assist in adolescent development: affecting the way adolescents/young adults feel about themselves and their relationships, how they view and feel about past experiences and how they then translate these feelings in order to act in and experience their own world.

So, what does this brief description of human development have to do with homeless and struggling young people? Everything.

Both genetic and environmental factors impact the development of our brain and associated physiological systems. Research has borne out that trauma (whether from physical abuse, neglect (health, educational, or relational), sexual abuse, bullying, community violence, teen pregnancy and/or the stigma attached to poverty) clearly impacts our biological, psychological and social development: three extremely important developmental areas for teens and young adults. These developmental areas, or maybe better-termed “trajectories,” are further impacted by life situations such as poverty and family (and/or housing) instability.

Homeless older teens and young adults have all certainly faced traumatic experiences in their lives. Their lives are unstable at best and in crisis for most. Even if housing is made available to them, they suffer the ills created during their tumultuous young lives: ills that cannot be cured by a housing only mindset and that will ultimately come back to “haunt them” later in life – again creating periods of or even chronic homelessness.

Graphic from Covenant House Tumblr:
Researchers, providers and community leaders know all of this. Yet, little is done (relatively speaking at least) to do anything about it. Creating and/or bolstering known, successful prevention and early intervention strategies takes courage – because it takes a reconsideration on how we feel about teens and young adults: especially those who struggle the most amongst us. We need the deep and complete understanding that a comprehensive set of solutions must be made available (now) to them in order for their healing and “redevelopment” to occur. We know it will work and we owe it to them.

Heavy investment into a 20 year-old (for example) will reap major rewards as compared to waiting until that same 20 year-old is 50. When at 50, not only will our interventions have been less successful, but also that individual will have spent 30 more years of suffering and pain.

Ultimately, we know that bettering the life situations of homeless and struggling young people, altering their current life trajectories, will have a much more profound impact on preventing a lifetime of tragedy. And to borrow from the sentiment of Ben Franklin, we must invest in “preventive and early interventive solutions.” Solutions that we know will result in much better outcomes than many “pounds of cure” and years of engagement could ever bring.

Tell your Councilmembers you support a data driven, holistic solution to "Ending Youth Homelessness in Washington, DC" by adding your name to the E-Sign On Letter.  

DCAYA would like to express our most sincere thanks to Dan Brannen, not only for this thoughtful blog post, but for his years of dedicated service to DC youth as the Executive Director of Covenant House DC. For those who may not know, after many years of commuting between DC and Pennsylvania (where his family resides) Dan recently made the difficult decision to depart Covenant House, finishing his tenure there in mid November. 
To say he will be missed is an understatement. His voice is a powerful one and his expertise and thoughtfulness about youth is, in a word, profound. We wish Dan the very best as he starts his next endeavor and hope to see him back in DC very, very soon. ~ Maggie Riden, Executive Director of DCAYA

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