“The power of youth is the common wealth for the entire world. The faces of young people are the faces of our past, our present and our future. No segment in the society can match with the power, idealism, enthusiasm and courage of the young people.” —Kailash Satyarthi
As a longtime advocate for children, youth and families in New Mexico, I wholeheartedly believe in the power, idealism, enthusiasm and courage of our young people, regardless of their past or current circumstances. Further, I fully support the ability and birthright of youth and young adults to claim their rightful space within our New Mexican communities, however they may see it.
Nevertheless, before any of us can claim our rightful space, we first need to be and feel part of a community. This typically requires that we have a safe place to live. Unfortunately, there are currently many young adults ages 24 and under in New Mexico for whom this is not yet a reality.
There are many reasons that contribute to homelessness within our state. The obvious ones are poverty and substance abuse, which are often the result of grief, untreated trauma and exposure to adverse childhood experiences. However, from my personal and humble standpoint, being poor or addicted should not prevent any one of us from having access to a fundamental, basic human right: shelter and a safe place to call home. Further, research and extensive experience show that individuals — young and old — are more likely to recover from addiction or secure employment only when they have safe, secure and permanent housing.
Though various data exist that illustrate New Mexico as a struggling state within the nation, now more than ever we must not allow the data to define us. In spite of the extensive and ongoing oppression experienced by many, New Mexicans are strong and resilient, as illustrated by the survival of our people, cultures and traditions over time.
Nevertheless, in New Mexico, as is the case across the nation, particular groups of youth and young adults are overrepresented among homeless populations, specifically youth who are involved in either the child welfare or juvenile justice systems. In addition, youth of color and who identify as LGBTQIA experience higher rates of homelessness than their white, straight peers. In our state, the highest rates of homelessness exist among young Native Americans, which makes absolutely no sense given they are the only original residents of this land.
In a 2017 point-in-time count, 1,164 individual New Mexicans reported experiencing homelessness. Of those individuals:
- 74 were unaccompanied youth
- 35 were ages 18 to 24
- 39 were under age 18
- Six youth (24 and under) were parenting.
In 2019, approximately 90 youth emancipated out of the statewide New Mexico child welfare system, according to the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.
Change within our grasp
While the data above is no doubt concerning, these numbers seem very manageable. Surely we can collectively find a way to ensure safe and secure housing for 200, or even 300 to 400 youth, can’t we?
I understand that we are a financially poor state, but we can no longer continue to use this as an excuse for not doing better for our people. We are rich in so many other ways: relationships, resiliency, community and culture, to name a few. We have the collective capacity to do better.
I have no doubt that with understanding, encouragement, access to a stable housing environment and relevant supportive services such as behavioral health care, employment, education and life skills, the majority of our youth and young adults are capable of self-sufficiency. Furthermore, they typically want more than anything to become independent, while feeling supported and part of a family and community — just like the rest of us. For those young adults who are further compromised and possibly unable to become self-sufficient, we must commit to caring for them long-term, as they too are our children, while encouraging independence and supporting individual capabilities.
Together, we need to provide a safe and supportive continuum of housing for youth and young adults, including those who are parenting. At the same time, we must strive to prevent future generations of young people from experiencing unnecessary trauma, maltreatment and homelessness. Youth and young adults possess the strength, knowledge and wisdom to direct their own lives; we must be committed to listening and providing them with support.
Finally, we must look to our young people as equal partners in assisting us to end challenges faced by many, such as homelessness. Their experiences and perspectives are rich. Their ideas are inspiring, innovative and practical. We must do better and truly, there is no reason why we cannot.
Youth are the common wealth for our entire world — it is time to recognize this and treat them as such.
Marisol Atkins is a former child welfare worker, juvenile justice corrections officer and deputy cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department. Atkins currently serves as a contract consultant for the Northern New Mexico Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project through the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness.