The great thing about being a community based researcher is that I get the opportunity to spend a lot of time the field working directly alongside adolescents and young people experiencing homelessness. Recently, I have been working on a project that has me spending a lot of time at a community partner agency. In a passing conversation the other day with a young man I have come to know very well, he spoke in a positive manner how he felt that things were looking up for him. However he briefly mentioned that he needed to find a different place to sleep because he feels that it’s no longer safe. Concerned, I asked him more about this statement. “People are getting shot. It doesn’t matter who you are.” More concerned, I politely asked him if he felt comfortable telling me where he slept at night. It turns out that this young person camps outside in a neighborhood that is 10 miles from the drop in center that he frequents but in the heart of one of the most gang-affected neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
Gangs and youth homelessness are two phrases that are not often used together. I personally am not sure why. My research estimates that 17% homeless young persons have ever or currently identify as a gang member and up to 56% have ever been affiliated with a gang member via a close friend, family member or romantic partner. This is much higher than rates estimated in America’s high schools (8% members and 33% affiliates). At the most recent West Coast Convening Meeting, before speaking about this topic, a colleague posed a question to a room full of leaders in the field of youth homelessness “Who here has ever worked with a young person that has been involved with gangs?” Every hand in the room raised.
As a researcher my goal is to bring more attention to the intersection of these issues and understand how these two areas intersect. Both of these social issues are complex, to say the least. . I will be the first to admit that I don’t have answers. In fact, the more answers I search for, the more questions I seem to arrive at. I do know that gangs, and the violence that comes with them, do affect the majority of young people that experience homelessness or housing insecurity. It terrifies me that there are young people experiencing homelessness who, on top of the plethora of risks that come with sleeping outside, have to safety plan around gang rivalry drive-bys. But this is a reality. A very real reality. Going forward, social agencies, leaders, front line workers, researchers, policy makers can not look at these issues separately. We cannot operate in silos.