For Homeless Youth, Age Can Compound Challenges of Life on the Streets

This is the fourth article in an occasional semester-long series on homelessness in Harvard Square. Read earlier installments here, here, and here.

Wrapped in a gray blanket on a rainy Friday afternoon in early April, Jade Hosie, 22, panhandles outside of a Harvard Square CVS on Garden St. Hosie ended up homeless almost two years ago when she and her mother lost their house in Buffalo, N.Y. after her mother fell ill.

Two days later, Harley, 19, is occupying the same space outside of CVS. A self-described “gypsy,” she says that Cambridge is just the latest stop on her two-year journey from Philadelphia up the Eastern seaboard.

A week later, as the weather starts warming up, Mike Olson, a San Francisco native who finds himself on the streets in Cambridge; Max, a homeless youth who is struggling to obtain treatment for a neurological disorder; and Alex Sanchez, who lives with her boyfriend in Cambridge but who enjoys the company in the Square, are smoking in the Pit.

These five stories suggest both the variety of life experiences of the homeless youth population that lives in and around Harvard Square and the challenges facing those who hope to aid this often overlooked subgroup within the larger homeless population.

As Dr. Ralph Vetters ’85 of the Sidney Borum Jr. Health Center points out, no matter how these young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 lose their homes, they are more likely than adults to become victims of sexual or other physical violence when out on the streets, while also facing many of the same basic challenges of homeless life.

But those who work with homeless youths say that despite their vulnerability, this group has the best chance of avoiding chronic homelessness and, as such, deserves greater attention and investment of resources than has previously been offered.

THE THREAT OF ASSAULT

In addition to the problems of exposure and hunger that all of Harvard Square’s homeless face on a daily basis, young people entering the streets face an added risk—they are often preyed upon by adults seeking money or sex.

As a single woman on the streets, Hosie says that several men have tried to take advantage of her situation, soliciting her for prostitution. “They know you’re desperate,” she says, adding that she has been able to fend them off.

“I’m not really afraid of anything,” she says. “As long as I’m not in a vulnerable situation like sleeping or something, I’m pretty good.”

Still, she recalls a time when she was almost raped while sleeping in the Harvard Square T stop. “I woke up with a guy in my sleeping bag next to me. He tried to kiss me. He tried to get on top of me, and I pushed him off. I grabbed my stuff and ran away,” she recounts.

Hosie’s experience is not unique. According to the 2013 Street Outreach Data Collection Report, a federally-funded study on homeless and runaway young people, about 17 percent of Boston-area homeless youth have been sexually assaulted or raped at some point. It is estimated that another 29.8 percent have suffered physical violence.

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