AUSTIN (NEXSTAR) — In four years, Texas hopes to provide an estimated 1,500 unaccompanied children living on the streets with a more permanent place to call home.
“People realize that even though we’re young, we get judged,” Christopher Williamson said. “People look at me and my tattoos and they describe me as a freak or a thug or you do drugs, and they are one to automatically assume, when in correction they are indeed wrong.”
Williamson has called the streets of Austin home for over a year. He said it was a combination of financial issues and relationship problems that drove him out of the University of Texas classroom and into the Austin streets.
“People are very quick to judge, but deep down in reality, everybody goes through the same issues,” Williamson said. “We’re still young, we have our whole lives ahead of us.”
Texas has one of the largest homeless youth populations in the country, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. Federal statistics show that nearly 10 percent of the country’s homeless youth live in Texas, which means more than 100,000 children don’t have a steady place to live.
“We have a significant problem with youth homelessness,” Susan McDowell, Executive Director of the non-profit group Lifeworks said. “In Austin alone, we know that on any given night we have more than one hundred youth who are actively homeless, and then on top of that we have dozens more older youth who are in foster care on the verge of aging out who are staying in emergency shelters.”
McDowell is helping lead the charge in Texas. Starting in September, Austin and San Antonio will participate in a national 100-day challenge to end youth homelessness. The Texas cities were two of three U.S. cities selected to take part in the challenge, due to the state’s rising population of youth homelessness.
“Living on the street is not something that anybody would ever wish for their child. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” McDowell said. “But it happens every day in Texas. Our goal is to make sure that never happens or if it does to make sure it is very brief and we get youth into housing and support.”
The 100-day challenge was initiated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who created a long term goal of completely eliminating youth homelessness by 2020. The goal is to see what works in the three selected cities and apply the results nationwide.
“Homelessness among youth does exist in Texas, and it is a big problem,” Patrick Lopez with the Texas Homeless Education Office said. “Every part of the state has students that are homeless that are going to schools in the state.”
Lopez said the best way to tackle homelessness is to encourage the young people to enroll in public schools. Each year there are roughly 5.5 million students enrolled in public schools in Texas, and according to the Texas Homeless Education Office, roughly 115,000 of those students have been identified as homeless.
“Texas needs to focus on trying to make sure that even though they don’t have a fixed or regular or adequate place to live, that they still can enroll and attend school,” Lopez said. “We think that really school is very important for these students, sometimes school is the most stable environment that they are in.”