Navigating Towards Adulthood

IMG_3677.jpgWhat does it take to become an adult these days? What does it take for a young person experiencing homelessness to become an adult? And, is it true—as many adults now claim—that young people in general, housed and un-housed, are way too coddled and over-protected and kept in a nest of some sort (including an emergency shelter or transitional housing nest) for so long that they end up with arrested development?

I’ve been thinking about these and related questions. They matter to me in my roles as parent to one young adult and one adult (and newly married); as university professor working with hundreds of young adult students; and as a nurse practitioner and researcher working with teens and young adults experiencing homelessness.  Having personally survived a difficult adolescence and young adulthood (including a spiral into homelessness), I care deeply about doing what I can to help young people navigate this important and precarious time of life.

And the nest/arrested development comment above that includes emergency and transitional housing/shelter for teens and young adults? That comes from the fascinating assortment of reader comments to a recent Seattle Times article on the Doorway Project that I am working on. The article by Scott Greenstone, “A cafe where no one is homeless: one solution to youth on Seattle streets” (December 11, 2017), highlighted the story of Brad Ramey, a young adult age 25 years. A transplant from Alaska, Ramey stays at ROOTS Young Adult Shelter (for young people 18-25), takes classes at a community college, and during the day spends time in coffee shops and the public library to stay warm and dry. Many of the reader comments included some variation of “he is not a youth, he is an adult,” along with the tired tropes of “there are plenty of jobs to be had” and “more enabling services attract even more and ‘lazy’ homeless people.”

I find these comments helpful in that they voice biases, views, and misperceptions that are likely widespread. They may, in some cases, represent teachable moments, at least for people who are open to new information. For instance, it seems there is confusion as to the definition of “young adult.”  The World Health Organization uses the term “adolescents” to describe youth 10-19 years (or age of majority for a particular country), “young adult” for persons 20-24 years, and uses the inclusive term “young person” for individuals ages 10-24 years. There are no standard age definitions of “adolescent” or “young adult” in the US. However, the ACA provision for health care coverage of young adults on a parent’s health insurance policy is until age 26. I wonder how many of the negative reader commentators to the Seattle Times article were by comfortably employed and housed parents of young adults taking advantage of this ACA provision.

Our country’s social and class and race structures continue to exert large and inequitable effects on adolescent development and life trajectories for our young people. I recently read sociologist A.B. Hollingshead’s now classic book Elmtown’s Youth (New York: Wiley, 1949). about “certain significant relationships found to exist between the social behavior of adolescents and social stratification in a Middle Western community immediately before the effects of WWII were apparent locally.” (p. 3) I found this to be a fascinating book, especially in the vivid descriptions of social class (including inadequate housing and homelessness) and its effects on adolescent development, on what are now called adverse childhood experiences/traumas, and life trajectories—and in the fact that so much is the same if not worse 78 years after Hollingshead’s research. As he concludes in his book, “Those aspects of the culture which foster and perpetuate the class system over the against the ideals of official America, embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, will have to be changed, if there has to be change, before Americans will face in practice the ideals they profess in theory.” (p. 453) Navigating towards adulthood is difficult under the best of circumstances. Navigating towards adulthood while experiencing homelessness and the traumas that often contributed to homelessness is exponentially more challenging. But not impossible.

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