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

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Hosie says she has experienced less harassment since she started panhandling with her fiance, who is also homeless.

According to Vetters, this is not unusual. Forming connections with other homeless youth, he says, is a matter of not just companionship but also protection. He describes the tendency of homeless youth to live in “street families,” small groups whose members look out for one another.

Even though there can be incidents of violence within certain street families, Vetters says, youth generally prefer living in groups rather than facing the dangers of living on their own.


The “street fam” community, Olson says, is something he values and wants to hold together.

“I don’t want to be alone,” he adds, as he sits with friends under the Out of Town News stand to take shelter from the rain.



Unlike her other friends in the Square, Harley is only here temporarily.

“I’m not homeless,” she says. “I’m a gypsy—a nomad.”

Harley, who declined to give her last name, says her mother kicked her out of their Philadelphia home three years ago, and she—then 16—made her way to New York City. There, she says she met a group of travelers and eventually became their leader.

“In New York...they called me the ‘Gypsy Queen,’” she says, “because I ran with a band of gypsies that were all older than me, and I had their respect.”

Cambridge’s youth homeless population can largely be divided into two groups: the resident homeless and the travelers. The resident homeless are primarily youths who have been forced out of steady shelter due to poverty or family disputes, whereas the travelers generally have chosen the lifestyle of wandering from city to city and living on the streets.

For both of these populations, Vetters says, substance abuse is an issue, with marijuana and alcohol abuse prevalent among resident homeless and heroin abuse more common among travelers.

Both groups also have higher rates of mental illness than the general population, he adds, and some psychological trauma stems from experiences with discrimination based on sexual orientation. Nationally, about 30 percent of homeless youth identify as LBGTQ, he says.

Meeting these medical needs can be difficult, Vetters says, because there is often a mutual misunderstanding between healthcare providers and the homeless youth they serve. The dangers of life on the street, he says, leave these young adults distrustful of new people—a baseline reaction that creates tension when youth interact with medical personnel in emergency care facilities.

“They’re not cosseted little kids who will say ‘Thank you, sir’ and appreciate everything that’s done for them in a simple way,” Vetters says. “They’ve had to fight for everything all the time and so their initial reaction is defensive, aggressive.”