Youth homelessness is a serious issue across America. The National Runaway Switchboard estimates that on any given night there are approximately 1.3 million homeless youth living unsupervised on the streets, in abandoned buildings, with friends or with strangers. However, there is most likely a large gap between the estimates and the actual count of homeless youth across America. The true count would be much higher. Advocates who work with the homeless say that many kids slip through the cracks because they don’t fill out the survey necessary for them to be a part of the count. Another challenge to getting accurate numbers on homeless youth is the fact that many youth are less willing to disclose that they are homeless and work harder to try and blend in with peers who aren’t homeless. This means they won’t gather in the same locations as the adult homeless population, making it more difficult to find and count them.
Homeless youth are one of the most vulnerable populations in America. They are at a higher risk for physical abuse, sexual exploitation, mental health disabilities, substance abuse, and death. At least one in five youth will be lured into human trafficking within 48 hours of leaving home, and one in three will be sexually exploited. The average age of trafficked victims is 12-14 years old, with many being younger than that. Approximately 5,000 unaccompanied youth die each year as a result of assault, illness or suicide.
However, in Horry County, South Carolina, yellow diamond signs marked “SAFE PLACE” offer hope to the homeless youth. These signs can be seen in the windows and on walls of fire stations, libraries, shops, restaurants, and other business to signal a safe harbor to youth in trouble.
Once a youth has entered a Safe Place, all they need to do is ask for help, and trained staff members call Sea Haven, the police, or the Department of Social Services. Then they keep the youth safe until help arrives.
The Myrtle Beach Bowling Center is one of 105 businesses throughout Horry County that are official Safe Places. Through Sea Haven’s membership with the National Safe Place Network they offer a lifeline to at-risk youth. Currently, 37 fire stations carry the yellow “Safe Place” sign as well. Wendy Gore, who oversees the Safe Place outreach at the local nonprofit Sea Haven, says they plan to start adding mobile sites through the fire departments as well, by putting yellow diamond decals on fire trucks and ambulances as a way to promote awareness as they respond to emergencies. Sea Haven staff also spend time in the schools, on the streets, and at locations popular with the youth in order to spread the word about Safe Place and the help that the agency offers.
Sea Haven operates four programs for homeless youth in Horry County, including the only drop-in center in South Carolina for street kids up to the age of 21. Known as Project Lighthouse, it offers youth a safe place to shower, do laundry, get survival gear, and access services like counseling. The counselors use this opportunity to get to know the kids in the hopes of getting them into other programs offered by Sea Haven (GED courses, job training, and housing assistance) and eventually getting them off the streets.
The National Safe Place Network originated at a YMCA shelter home in Louisville, Kentucky in 1983. Now, the network extends to nearly 20,000 partnering businesses and community locations, managed by 139 youth agencies nation wide.
Weaver, E. (May 18, 2017). Homeless kids fall prey to sex trafficking every day. But a yellow sign offers a way out. Myrtle Beach Online. Retrieved from http://www.myrtlebeachonline.com/news/local/article151432517.html
(June 21, 2016). 2016’s Shocking Homelessness Statistics. Social Solutions. Retrieved from http://www.socialsolutions.com/blog/2016-homelessness-statistics/
(April 14, 2016). HOMELESS AND RUNAWAY YOUTH. NCSL: National Conference of State Legislatures. Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/homeless-and-runaway-youth.aspx