Leo Fisher, 24, was once homeless as a teen and now volunteers at The Rare Breed Youth Services. “It’s very stressful when you don’t have a stable place and you’re not sure you’ll be able to find someplace to sleep… Even if I’m able to help one kid in a month, it’s the difference between that kid being able to get out of his situation like I did, or being stuck in a rut like some of my parents’ friends, who are still homeless today.” (Photo by Jym Wilson)

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Forty-nine young people recently stepped up to tell Springfield what it’s like to be homeless, and it’s a gritty picture. Ugly, sometimes:

  • Females and LGBTQ+ youth were more likely to stay somewhere unsafe, staying with a sexual partner longer for safety. 
  • Black youth and a disproportionate number of other youth of color were tricked into an employment situation where expectations or pay were different than originally promised. 
  • LGBTQ+ youth were more likely to report sexual exploitation while homeless.
  • Some paid using other than money, such as food stamps, sex or labor/work, to have a place to stay.

This snapshot of life on the street appears in the 2023 Survey of High-Risk and Homeless Youth. It was developed by the Homeless Youth Task Force of the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness, and the Christian, Greene and Webster counties’ Continuum of Care. The Alliance is the regional planning body for all homeless services and compliance with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines.

Like the previous nine surveys since 2007, the group sought to explore the needs of at-risk and homeless youth in the Springfield metropolitan area. And like all the other surveys, the youths gave many of the same reasons for being homeless: abuse, trauma, limited housing options and unemployment or underemployment.  

The 49 young people ranged from age 14 to 23, and were already receiving or wanted to receive help from service agencies. They are among the estimated 840 youths considered homeless in the Springfield area. Nationally, an estimated 4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness in the United States, 700,000 of which are unaccompanied minors.  

“I don’t think we should assume we’ve captured everyone’s voice,” says Christina Ryder, who analyzed the data and provided the report as co-director of the Center for Ozarks Poverty Research, based in Missouri State University’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Gerontology. She also serves on the MSU faculty, and will present the data and recommendations at the Oct. 18 meeting of the Homeless Youth Task Force.

Christina Ryder, co-director of the Center for Ozarks Poverty Research, based at Missouri State University. (Photo: Missouri State University)

“These are individuals already in some way wanting to be or are connected to services,” Ryder says. “They’ve been counted. I think there are likely more that we are not surveying and their needs are also not captured.” 

Volunteer knows the needs from first-hand experience

Leo Fisher, 24, knows that all too well. A former homeless teen himself who now has a stable home and job, Fisher helps out every day after work with homeless and at-risk youth at the Rare Breed — a place he credits for saving him years ago. 

Leo Fisher, now 24, was homeless at age 15, but has a stable life now and volunteers at The Rare Breed Youth Services. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

“Even with all the resources that are available,” Fisher says, “every day, every week, every month, I see new faces coming in that are needing help.” 

Youths ages 13-24 can come to the day drop-in center at 301 N. Main St. for a free meal, do laundry, shower, use the computers and apply for housing through a citywide system serving the homeless. 

Their list of needs are great. Youths cited in the survey: short-term/crisis shelter/housing; long-term shelter/housing; transitional living programs for pregnant or parenting teens; and a “one-stop shop” for the services such as shelter resources, job training, GED, counseling, food and mentoring. They also noted a need for substance abuse services, affordable rental housing, day shelters, transportation services, accessible resources for autistic youth, financial literacy programs, additional food resource options, mentorship, and STD resources. 

Without intervention, homeless youth face a dire future. The March 2023 Youth Homelessness Overview by the National Conference of State Legislatures suggests:   non-heterosexual and gender non-conforming youth are at a greater risk for exploitation once homeless. Youth who have been homeless generally have much higher rates of early death than their stably housed peers. Children who experience homelessness are also more likely to experience homelessness as adults. Suicide is the leading cause of death for unaccompanied youth without shelter. 

In Springfield, homeless youth may “couch surf” with a friend or adult, or bed down in a shelter, hotel/motel, a shed, porch, park, car, tunnel or vacant building. Some of the teens surveyed said they paid using something other than money — food stamps, sex, labor/work — for a place to stay.  

Emily Fessler is a continuum of care coordinator for the O’Reilly Center of Hope. She sees “old poor” and “new poor” youth struggling as they deal with homelessness. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Trauma in early life at root of many situations

They’re homeless for reasons that mirror the earlier surveys and national data:  Teen/parent discord, yes, but MSU’s Christina Ryder says data point to one primary trigger: an early life trauma. It can be emotional, physical or sexual abuse, parental drug and alcohol abuse, verbal, sexual or physical abuse by a caregiver, or an unsafe living situation.

Some youths were kicked out of the house because they identified as LGBTQ+.

Add to those factors: Poverty, says Emily Fessler, a continuum of care coordinator at the O’Reilly Center for Hope in Springfield. 

In street terms, it’s “old poor” and “new poor.” Old poor is “generational poverty,” Fessler says. “For kids who grow up in households where their parents or their grandparents have experienced homelessness, they don’t know much else, so it becomes difficult for them to sort of break out of that cycle.” 

“New poor” speaks to our economic climate, Fessler says. It’s hard to find affordable housing, and many jobs don’t pay a living wage. Middle class families who were living paycheck-to-paycheck found their paycheck didn’t cut it anymore. “You have that new poor, or new to poverty, and so they don’t know where those services are because they haven’t ever had to utilize them before.” Youths who leave those homes may have few life skills to survive on the street.

Other groups of homeless youth face harsher circumstances, Christina Ryder learned from the homeless survey data.

  • Mental/behavioral health and/or physical disabilities have prevented them from getting a job or remaining in housing.
  • Youth formerly in foster care or were wards of the state were more likely to experience homelessness. “Some of this has to do with the transition from foster care to life on their own, it’s known that is a very vulnerable spot,” Ryder says. 
  • Members of the LBGTQ+ population and youth of color were disproportionately more likely to be exploited in work situations while homeless.   
Leo Fisher, 24, volunteers at The Rare Breed Youth Services. Photographed on a service road behind The Rare Breed that leads to woods between North Main Avenue and West College Street where he occasionally slept when he was homeless teenager. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

A life on the street

“I see a lot of kids come into Rare Breed and I see myself in them,” says Fisher, formerly homeless at 15, today a 24-year-old gentle bear of a man. 

He was not a novice at street life. “I grew up when my mom was a resident of the Missouri Hotel when it was a transitional housing program. That’s where some of my early childhood memories are.”

Family housing improved some over the years, but at 15 he left home after a “pretty big fight” with his father. As a high school sophomore living on the street, he rode his bicycle to school, then went to work as a busboy at a local diner, then hung out downtown with friends at Rare Breed. There, he got clothes, a meal, a place to shower and do laundry, and do his homework on a computer. 

At 5 p.m., closing time, he’d head outside whether it was frigid or stifling hot, sometimes with buddies to pitch a tent and a bedroll near downtown, or in a homeless camp nearby. In the morning, he’d get up in time to ride his bike to school — “Just wash, rinse and repeat.”  

He credits his Parkview High School teachers and other adults for helping him get through those years, and making sure he graduated: Class of 2017. 

“Most of my high school career is just a big blur of waking up and working and going to sleep, and working and going to sleep. You get caught up in making it through the day, you don’t get to focus on a lot of little things,” he says.

“The worst part of being homeless was going to bed at night and not knowing where I was going to be the next day,” Fisher says. “Was it somewhere I could safely keep my stuff? If I was going to have my stuff taken? Or get beat up because I had something someone else wanted?…”

He’d put a padlock from the zipper on his sleeping bag to his tent pole and bicycle at night so they couldn’t “walk off.” He always felt vulnerable, “and I know females have it harder in some aspects.”

When you’re homeless, he says, “There is no ‘I’m better than you are’ or ‘You’re better than me.’ It’s just trying to make it through another day.”

Fisher would return to live at home once, then later stayed with a friend, and eventually went back to the streets and Rare Breed. It struck him, after being away for a time, that some of the first people he met there were still struggling to get out of that rut.

“Mental health issues…” he says.

With help, he turned around his life

In time, through a needs-based housing program for Springfield’s homeless that paid his deposit, Fisher shared the cost of rent for an apartment until he could pay the full cost. Today at 24, he works full time in a good job “swinging a hammer,” and lives in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend. He’s saving up to buy a house in a couple years.

“My life has done a complete 180,” he says.

He hopes the same for the other youths he meets at Rare Breed. He also serves with six other former homeless young adults on the Youth Action Board of the Homeless Youth Task Force. Recently they published and distributed a comprehensive guide of services and shelters for homeless youth.

Download a copy of the Empowering Youth Resource Guide.

It comes just in time for many homeless youth. The survey noted that a significant number of them were not aware of, or didn’t know how to access, basic needs such as medical care, medication, food, substance abuse counseling and housing services. Half of them said they were unsure of where they would get food on the day of the survey.

Dakota “JR” Harris, 23, is homeless and benefits from The Rare Breed’s services. Harris has been homeless off and on since he was 17 years old. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

A need that exceeds capacity

The resource list is evidence that government and nonprofits are trying to address issues of homeless and at-risk youth. But Fessler adds, “The need is greater than our capacity by far.”  

MSU’s Ryder acknowledges that in the report, and adds, “They’re providing a lot of great services and it may look on the surface like they’re providing a lot, but youth are asking for more help and more services. It’s very difficult.” 

She sees encouraging signs. 

Ninety percent of the 49 youth surveyed were either high school graduates or currently enrolled in some form of education — middle or high school, college and/or high school equivalent programs. “I don’t know if it’s because they’re connecting with an agency, but that’s such a sign someone has really worked on that to make sure that those youth are enrolled in school and moving forward,” Ryder says. “Education is No. 1 in social mobility. I’m encouraged to see that.” 

She’s also optimistic about the Generations Village project, which is planned to provide affordable, intergenerational housing for underserved groups, including youth aging out of foster care. She notes there is virtually nothing for teens aging out of foster care or who are no longer wards of the state. A fundraising campaign is underway to start construction.

And Annie Busch, a longtime homeless youth advocate, sees hope for youth struggling with mental health issues. About 69% of the surveyed youth reported having been diagnosed with a mental health or physical disability at some point in their lives. Burrell Behavioral Health recently announced plans for a Youth Resiliency Campus. Youths experiencing a mental health crisis will be able to seek immediate help 24 hours a day. It calls for a walk-in clinic, and programs for intensive outpatient car, partial hospitalization and youth residential treatment. 

Emily Fessler of the O’Reilly Center of Hope applauds efforts to address mental health issues faced by youth. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

“There’s a huge need,” says Fessler, with the O’Reilly Center for Hope. Such a facility can help address those early traumas that often drive youth to homelessness, and the toll that being homeless, itself, has on youth.

It could even prevent teens from going to the streets by helping them resolve those teen/parent issues, Fessler says.


Homelessness has high cost to community

It isn’t possible to measure the precise cost to communities of youth homelessness, but it’s likely high, Ryder concludes in the report. She quotes the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness that noted, “We know that high rates of medical and behavioral health care and incarceration are costly. These costs compound over a lifetime as today’s homeless youth become tomorrow’s homeless adults.” 

Ryder refers to one cost-benefit analysis showing that Cincinnati’s Lighthouse Youth Services housing programs cost about $85 per day compared with $216 per day to house a youth in a juvenile justice facility. 

More such analysis is necessary, Ryder says in the report, but sees a convincing argument that providing adequate funding for programs to prevent youth homelessness — housing and employment resources where possible — “is a good social investment that saves communities money in services and policing both now and in the future.”

A service road behind The Rare Breed that leads to woods between North Main Avenue and West College Street where homeless people sometimes sleep. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

We can house, but can we heal?

Ryder has helped analyze the teen homeless surveys since 2013. While this year’s results held no surprises for her, they underscore the horrific impact that early life trauma — physical, mental and sexual child abuse and family violence — have on a life and life outcomes.

They also have short- and long-term consequences for the community, she says. They impact social service programs, the workforce and local economies, long-term individual productivity and health, and have consequences that destroy life potential, families, and quality of life, she adds.

“Investing in family violence prevention strategies, trauma and harm reduction strategies, as well as anti-discrimination and anti-exploitation strategies, also has the possibility of positive financial returns for all community residents.” 

Kathleen O'Dell

Kathleen O’Dell is a veteran journalist who has covered health care, business, education and investigative pieces throughout her career. She’s a St. Louis native and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. In addition to working for a Texas newspaper, she was on the first staff of USA Today in Washington, D.C., and spent most of her newspaper career at the Springfield News-Leader. More by Kathleen O’Dell