Understanding and Addressing Mental Health Issues of African American Youth Experiencing Homelessness

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June 2, 2023

June 19, 1865, known as Juneteenth, is a day of profound weight and power, when enslaved Americans in Galveston, Texas, finally received word that they were free from bondage1. President Biden’s 2021 proclamation made Juneteenth a national holiday and recommended that Americans recommit themselves to the work of equity, equality, and justice.2

According to Chapin Hall’s 2021 issue brief, Centering Racial Equity in Youth Homelessness3 , homelessness rates experienced among African American youth are disproportionately higher than rates among their white peers. Reasons for this inequity are many and include young people experiencing disruptions in the home and family, community poverty and experiences of racism4 , of which over time results in race related stress, physical illness and mental health concerns. In observance and recognition of Juneteenth, the National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families is sharing innovations related to supporting African American youth experiencing homelessness.

Housing-insecure youth report instances of physical and emotional abuse, financial exploitation, and sex-trafficking while staying in shelters, on the streets, and “doubled-up” with acquaintances, family, or strangers5. ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences, occur when a youth experiences a traumatic event or environmental factors that threaten their sense of safety, stability, and bonding6. ACEs have been shown to have a negative impact on a person’s mental health and well-being, physical health, and substance abuse issues in adulthood7. The significant number of African American youth experiencing homelessness places these youth at risk of ACEs exposure, resulting in substantial risk of trauma and mental health.

The ability to navigate, persist and build resiliency against such trauma can come at a high cost, especially to African American youth, as they navigate housing instability and homelessness. Counseling and therapy are traditional, effective and commonly used coping strategies to address mental health stressors. Additionally, cultural research has documented the importance of understanding the impact of intergenerational trauma, defined as the individual and collective trauma historically experienced by African Americans, as a pathway to innovating on community and culturally based treatment options for African American youth8. As more research is conducted on methods to address the mental health of African American youth and their need for community and belonging, communities are learning more about the use of healing justice as a coping mechanism and how it can enrich the lives of those who are marginalized.

The Bradley Angle Healing Roots and Kinship Program, a FYSB grantee, provides services to address impacts of intergenerational trauma on African American youth and their families in Portland, Oregon, in addition to serving anyone affected by domestic violence. Specifically, the Kinship program helps youth strengthen community bonds through peer support groups, family field trips, and culturally specific mentorship opportunities.

Healing justice refers to the process of creating pathways to being whole and in relationship with self and others while acknowledging harm from interpersonal, institutional, and structural oppression9. A healing justice framework to inform innovative practices to support African American youth experiencing homelessness utilizes healing modalities indigenous to their communities.

Healing centered engagement uses culture as a way to ground young people in a solid sense of meaning, self-perception, and purpose. This process highlights the intersectional nature of identity and highlights the ways in which culture offers a shared experience, community and sense of belonging. Healing is experienced collectively, and is shaped by shared identity such as race, gender, or sexual orientation. 

Dr. Shawn Ginwright Associate Professor of Education, and African American Studies, San Francisco State University, and author of Hope and Healing in Urban Education: How Activists are Reclaiming Matters of the Heart. (Source: https://bit.ly/3UDRoA0)

The African American community has culturally relied on religion and spirituality, community-building activities, and peer-to-peer support to cope with and navigate everyday stress and collective trauma. Healing justice values these coping practices and works in tandem with them. Concrete ways to operationalize healing justice in supporting African American youth experiencing homelessness include:

  • Addressing loneliness: African American youth may feel lonely and disconnected from their community due to the trauma they experience. Programs should support youth in reconnecting with their community by recognizing their need for social connections, assisting them in finding safe spaces to process their pain, connecting to supportive caring adults that can help advocate for their needs, and finding opportunities to engage in positive forms of peer support, especially from peers with similar experiences.
  • Facilitating collective care: This strategy is part of building community and encourages individuals and communities impacted by trauma to heal together. Strategies for building community can include organizing around a community issue, storytelling events that center on African American joy, and/or facilitating a healing practice centered in mutual aid10.
  • Practicing mindfulness: Mindfulness can be understood as the moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. Mindfulness practices, such as yoga and breathwork, can also strengthen African American youth’s mental health by increasing self-awareness and reducing stress, anxiety, and depression11.

Moving forward, additional research should focus on explaining the disparity in homeless rates for African American youth versus other racial/ethnic groups. Consideration to unique circumstances of African American youth should be given to the following factors:

  • African American youth would benefit from the incorporation of racial socialization into trauma-focused cognitive behavior theory. Racial socialization involves messages of support and guidance around African American cultures, attitudes, and values. The treatment focuses on African American heritage, the existence of discrimination, and how African American youth can manage complex interactions with the majority culture12.
  • Deepening the understanding of African American youth homelessness requires going beyond documenting the prevalence of homelessness among African American youth. The study of how intersectionality affects this population must also be considered. For example, it is important to learn about gender and sexual orientation, among other demographic and sociological information, of the individuals being studied. The intersection of racial and sexual orientation is a theme in homelessness literature that is well established13
  • While African American individuals represent 12.1% of the U.S. population14, they account for a disproportionate percentage of youth experiencing homelessness. More research exploring how systemic discrimination contributes to pathways into homelessness for African American youth is warranted.
  • African American youth are over-represented in the child welfare system. There is a studied correlation between youth homelessness and previous involvement in the child protection system. The child welfare field has moved from acknowledging the problem of systemic racial and ethnic disproportionality and disparity to formulating and implementing solutions. As jurisdictions and agencies evaluate their systems to identify where and how disproportionalities and disparities are occurring, they are increasingly seeking practices that use an antiracist approach and show promise for their own populations15.




4Historian Ibram X Kendi defined anti-Black racism as any attitude, behavior, practice, or policy that explicitly or implicitly reflects the belief that Black people are inferior to another racial group, (Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Nation Books, 2016, p.5.)

5Morton, M. H., A. Dworsky, and G. M. Samuels. 2017. “Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America. National Estimates.” Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. http://voicesofyouthcount.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/VoYC-National-… 







12Metzger IW, Anderson RE, Are F, Ritchwood T. Healing Interpersonal and Racial Trauma: Integrating Racial Socialization Into Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for African American Youth. Child Maltreat. 2021 Feb;26(1):17-27. doi: 10.1177/1077559520921457. Epub 2020 May 5. PMID: 32367729; PMCID: PMC8807349. 




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