After running up and down the small mobile unit to make sure that we had everything ready for patients we successfully opened our doors to the crowd waiting in the main building. This was our second clinic at the local drop-in shelter for at-risk youth. My first patient was an older teen who I’ll refer to as Tonya. Tonya had just moved to back to Ohio, where she was originally from, and was having difficulty with the transition. She had moved away from her family—for reasons we won’t get into at this time—and was living in-and-out of friends’ and maybe, not-so friends’ houses. The shelter was a safe-haven during it’s open hours and she was coming to the clinic to talk about her increased anxiety and depression that she was experiencing. We had talked for a long time and I ended up giving her information about free, local counseling services. I had asked that she come back when we were going to be there next, but unfortunately I have yet to see her again.
My second patient was a young man, let’s call him Chris, who had just returned from spending a few months overseas in Africa. Listening to his stories I soon learned that he thrived off of adventure and spontaneity. His medical concerns would have filled a small book, but we worked through what we could. I asked if Chris would also return to clinic when we came back in two weeks, and funnily enough this wanderer has shown up to every clinic since. Sometimes, he just comes to chat and get some emotional support.
These patients are unique and complex, but all are bonded by the fact that at some point in their lives they have been without a stable home. “At-risk youth” is a term used frequently in the healthcare setting and can have a flexible definition. Simply put these are youth that are more vulnerable to disease and social injustices depending on various circumstances (i.e. family structure, or lack thereof, financial disparity, chronic medical conditions, etc.). These at-risk youth are also more prone to running away or being abandoned and becoming homeless.
It’s estimated that 1.6-1.7 million homeless youth live on the streets, in shelters, or other temporary locations each year in the U.S. Within Columbus alone there is an estimated 1,500 youth who experience homelessness yearly and are proven to be at a higher risk for injury, exploitation, chronic disease, mental illness, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, trauma and violence, chronic conditions, and dermatologic and dental concerns. Many of these also unfortunately use alcohol and drugs to cope and have a higher rate of substance abuse.
Many programs nationally and locally are working hard to be a voice and stable resource for these children and teens. Cap4Kids has a page on their website that lists all of the local centers in Columbus where people can either drop-in or stay overnight and serves children and families. There is also a coalition of mobile clinics for homeless youth throughout the entire nation called Children’s Health Fund. Despite the tragedies, there are great stories that bring hope to this terrible reality. Check out this story of Kenneth Chancy who grew up without a home on L.A.’s “skid row” and graduated last year from college aiming to change our country’s perception of homelessness.
Tonya and Chris were two wonderful teens whom I enjoyed talking with, but wish to see a brighter outlook for their future. We have some great programs already in place to reach out to them, but let’s keep talking about this issue of youth homelessness and continue to fight for these little, big fighters!