Young Homeless People Are Struggling to Stay Safe During the Pandemic

Were California its own country, it would have the fifth largest economy in the world, just behind Germany and ahead of the United Kingdom. It’s a “nation state,” as Governor Gavin Newsom often refers to it, that occupies an outsize influence on the the nation as a whole; not just writing the television shows and movies people watch, or inventing the technologies in their pockets, but also growing and producing a substantial portion of the fruits, nuts and vegetables in their supermarkets. For better and for worse, some experts have pegged California as being, politically, 15 years ahead of the rest of the nation, and an indicator of forthcoming national trends.

As the country grapples with the questions surrounding reopening and contemplates what it might look like to return to some semblance of normal life — if we can safely return to some semblance of normal life — so, too, are some of its most vulnerable young people. And for those in California, that means navigating a global pandemic amid the state’s long standing homelessness crisis.

“I thought it was a joke,” Lauren Bridges told Teen Vogue, when she first started hearing about COVID-19. Prior to being placed in housing last year through Youth Emerging Stronger, an organization offering comprehensive support services to homeless and foster youth in Los Angeles County, Lauren, 20, and her girlfriend had been living together in their car. Prior to that, the two had spent time living outside, sometimes sleeping on the beach.

Lauren saw false claims about the novel coronavirus on social media — one video she saw claimed the virus turned an infected person’s blood purple — but when she saw an article that someone had contracted the virus in Orange County, where her sister lives, it made her pause. “After that I got more worried…like, to catch this would be something serious.” When we spoke, Lauren was awaiting the results from her own COVID-19 test, after another family member she had been in contact with tested positive.

According to the most recent data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are approximately 151,278 unsheltered and sheltered homeless people across California, the highest rate of any state in the country, and over 86,000 more than in New York, the state with the next highest rate of homelessness. Of those in California, an estimated 12,396 were unaccompanied homeless youth in 2018. Across the country, Black, Latinx, LGBTQ and pregnant or parenting youth are disproportionately at higher risk for homelessness. Stay-at-home orders have upended people’s lives and livelihoods across the United States and around the world. But for homeless youth, these orders mean something entirely different.

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