Hearing the Unhoused: How to Really Help Homeless Youth

Host Nyge Turner talks with Emi Nietfeld, author of “Acceptance,” about her experience being unhoused while studying at Harvard University and she shares what young people who are homeless want to see in a shelter to actually feel safe.

Hearing the Unhoused: How to Really Help Homeless Youth

About 4.2 million people between the ages of 12 and 24 experience some form of homelessness each year in the United States, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Adult ISH host Nyge Turner connects with Emi Nietfeld, who wrote “Acceptance,” about her experience navigating being unhoused while studying at Harvard University. Emi shares resources that can help young people manage housing insecurity and explains why youth homelessness is less about personal responsibility and more about a preventable systemic problem. 

If you or anyone you know needs immediate housing support, reach out to the National Safe Place Network. Just send a text with the word “HELP” to the number 4HELP (44357). Or call 1-800-RUNAWAY (1-800-786-2929). 

Adult ISH is produced by YR Media and brought to you by PRX’s Radiotopia. Be sure to follow all our socials @YRAdultISH!

Please show your support for Adult ISH by making a donation at: YRMedia.org/Donate. THANK YOU!

Episode Transcript

This is Sam Choo, EP of Adult ISH. We’ll start the show in a second, but I wanted to give you a heads-up that this episode includes discussions of young people who are unhoused. 

If you or anyone you know needs immediate housing support, reach out to the National Safe Place Network. Just send a text with the word “HELP” to the number 4-HELP (44357). Again, text the word “help” to 44357. Or call 1-800-RUNAWAY, that’s 1-800-786-2929. Again, that’s 1-800-786-29-29. Please take care as you listen.

[YR Music]

Welcome to Adult ISH – produced by YR Media – and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX.  

I’m Nyge Turner.

And today, we’re talking about young people without stable housing. 

I think as Americans we have a tendency to look for individual responsibility all the time. And we're pretty obsessed with individual responsibility. And so even if you're a teenager, like I was, you know, it's kind of like, “Well, what did you do to get yourself into this situation?” Like, “Couldn't you have stayed with, like, that person, or like, couldn't you have made better plans?” And I think that it's really important to see the causes of youth homelessness and homelessness in general as systemic and to look at the people who are experiencing it as people who are really doing the best that they can.

That’s Emi Nietfeld, author of “Acceptance,” a critically acclaimed memoir of her journey from foster care and homelessness to Harvard and Big Tech.

About 4.2 million people between the ages of 12 to 24 years old experience some form of homelessness each year in the United States. That’s according to the National Law Center on Homelessness &  Poverty. That’s a lot of young people trying to navigate being unhoused, and Black and Latinx people make up the clear majority. So, today, we’re getting some perspectives and sharing resources that could help you get involved.

Now, let's hear about some of Emi’s first-hand experiences. 

Emi: Oh, man.  Homelessness is obviously a huge problem in the United States as a whole. So much of it is driven by a lack of affordable housing, by poverty, by economic reasons that are pretty much totally preventable. And a lot of that is like family homelessness – where young people are homeless with one or more parents or with siblings. My particular experience was after coming out of foster care, where, I think one element of youth homelessness that we don't pay enough attention to is what happens when people's parents cannot take care of them, and they don't have a safe place to go.

Nyge: Right. What do you feel like is a common misconception surrounding youth homelessness?

Emi: I think there's a stereotype that homelessness means living on the street and sleeping on the sidewalk, on a cardboard box, or in a sleeping bag, which obviously happens and is really, really tragic and a super difficult situation. Also, a lot of homelessness is couchsurfing. Right? Going from one friend's place to another, bouncing between relatives – really, trying to find anywhere that you can stay. For some people, that also looks like being in romantic relationships that aren't necessarily healthy or doing what's called “survival sex,” where you might be engaged with a partner – not engaged to get married, but, where you're using your body to meet your basic needs. 

Nyge: Yeah.

Emi: And I think that that's really, really common. But people don't don't talk about it, especially when it comes to, to children and teens.

Nyge: Yeah, definitely. But it, is like, seems like there is a stigma surrounding homelessness in general, and people don't want to, like, admit that or classify themselves as that, because they think like, it's their fault. What are your, like, feelings on why people do that?

Emi: Yeah. I don't think anybody should have to take on a label that they really don't want to take on. I mean, I know when I was a teenager and I did not have a place to live, I was deeply uncomfortable with the term “homeless” because, you know – I did have a mom who loved me. I did have a car that I could sleep in. And I think that, yeah, there is just this sense in America of, like, ‘if you just planned better, you would have a place to live.’

Nyge: Right. 

Emi: Right? And, I think we want to look on the bright side. Right? When it's a difficult situation, like, to be like, “Hey, this is temporary. Like, I'm making the best of it.” You know? And that I think that impulse can be positive. But, you know, now there's the term “unhoused,” which I think is really useful when you're looking at the societal reasons why so many people don't have an affordable place to live. 

Nyge: Right. 

Emi: But, I sometimes worry that just like changing, the term is supposed to remove the stigma, when the stigma is about the idea more than a specific word.

Nyge: Yeah. What are particular resources that immediately jump out to you, for people who are experiencing being, you know, unhoused?

Emi: When I was 16, I had the summer where I stayed with like six different friends. I ran out of places to go. I had just had surgery, and I was sleeping in the backseat of my car, and the last thing that I wanted to do in the whole world was go to a shelter or go to any sort of resource for, like, homeless youth, youth in crisis, or anything like that. But my college counselor, she found out about my situation and she really pushed me to go to, like, make a phone call, show up at this place, and it ended up being amazing. Like, I have interacted with a lot of different systems – being in foster care and going through a lot of mental health treatment, and this shelter called The Bridge [for Youth], in Minneapolis, really was the best. And, I don't think you hear enough people being like, “I love my homeless shelter.” 

Nyge: Yeah.

Emi: But, there really are some good programs out there, that are really sensitive to the needs of young people that are super-, like, queer-friendly, trans-friendly, if that's a group that you're in. And that are really attuned also to like, like needs of people of color and people who might have been, like, trafficked or be survivors. And, so I wish I had been a little bit more open to getting that help. And, I'm really glad that eventually, like, I was pushed towards it. And, I think also just friends and family really were important, like people who I didn't know that well were often willing to, like, give me a place to stay. 

Nyge: Yeah.

Emi: And, that's not a solution to the crisis that's going on. 

Nyge: Right.

Emi: But, just like, in hindsight. I wonder if I have been able to be even a little bit more open about, “Here's what's happening at home. Like, here's where I'm going to spend the night,” if it might have been a little bit easier for me. Because, I think people really do want to help. And I think about it, and I think about – if I have a kid and their friends, like, doesn't have a place to go – like, yeah, I'm pulling out the sofa. Like, I'm putting the sheets on it. Right?

Nyge: Yeah.

Emi: Like, I want to be there for them. And I think that my friends’ parents wanted to be there for me too, if I had given them the chance.

Nyge: Definitely. And those things go a really long way. What made that homeless shelter a good fit for you? Like, what aspects of care should, like, folks be on the lookout for when they're looking for a safe place?

Emi: Yeah.

Nyge: And also, what are some green flags to look out for in a shelter? In a space?

Emi: Yeah. Even just looking at their website, it is really clear that The Bridge is super-welcoming to youth of different identities. Where they have just a lot of signaling of, like, if you're queer, this is a safe space for you. Right? If you're a person of color, this is a safe space for you. And, they have a youth advisory board, which is something that's becoming more common for organizations. Every organization that works with youth should have one, but [one] where former residents are chiming in on how they think that the organization should be run. And this place was night-and-day compared to, say, the residential psychiatric treatment center where I lived. Right? Both were places where kids who were in difficult situations were being sent and were going, but residential treatment was involuntary. 

Nyge: Mmhmm.

Emi: This place was totally voluntary. Right? You go there, you have the choice to come. You have the choice to leave. And I think, honoring that kind of autonomy is a huge green flag. And looking at what are mandatory parts of the programing? 

Nyge: Mmhmm.

Emi: For example, if they require you to go to church or another religious service – that is a big thing to look at. And, that keeps a lot of people away from programs, because they do often have, like, a strict religious agenda. 

Nyge: Yeah.

Emi: And that can make [someone] feel deeply uncomfortable. But, this place felt so welcoming to me, in part, because I got there and I was surrounded by teenagers who were going through the same thing I was going through.

Nyge: Mmhmm. 

Emi: And, when I had been in inpatient psychiatric treatment or in foster care, I had gotten these messages from adults that I was the problem, and that I was not living at home because there was something wrong with me. When really my, you know, one of my parents had moved away and had really severe psychiatric issues, and my mom was a hoarder. There was no place for me in her apartment. And, this shelter just had a really trauma-informed model. And, just meeting other people who were like – “Hey, I was in foster care too. I was reunited with my family, but it didn't work out and so I don't have a place to live anymore,” – that kind of validation was so, so meaningful. And, whether it was coming from, like, an in-person experience or a message board online, I didn't even know I needed that until I had it.

Nyge: Yeah. So we've, we've touched on your experience throughout this conversation a little bit so far, but I do really want to make space for you to talk about your book. Can you give our audience an overview of your book, “Acceptance.” And your personal story a little bit more.

Emi: Yeah. So I grew up in Minneapolis. I was a bookworm. And then, when I was nine years old, my parents split up and my life fell apart. One of my parents moved away. The other started dealing with really intense compulsive shopping and hoarding. But my mom, she couldn't see that there was a problem – even when there were mice, like, running through our apartment. And so instead, I was taken to the doctor, and I was given diagnoses like Depression, ADD, and lots and lots of psychiatric drugs. And so, by the time I was 14, I had taken a dozen different pills, from ADHD meds to antipsychotics – which can be really helpful for some people – but for me, were just making the situation worse. 

Nyge: Mmmhmm.

Emi: And that's really where my book “Acceptance” opens, when I was sent to this locked treatment center. And, my life just felt totally hopeless. And I was like, “How am I going to get myself out? Like, is there a way out?” And for me, that way was college. And so I started studying for the SAT behind these barred windows of this locked facility. And then, the next year, in foster care. And I was just convinced, if I could get in, I can make it happen. But, unfortunately, even though I got a scholarship to go to boarding school, which totally changed my life and was amazing, I still didn't have a place to live during school breaks. And, so that was my main experience with homelessness. And, I write a lot about in the book how there's this tremendous pressure on young people to act like whatever is happening in their life is for the better. And that, like to, to just view yourself always as, like, a survivor instead of a victim – even when systems really are conspiring against you to make your life really, really hard.

Nyge: Definitely. Yeah, definitely. What school did you go to again?

Emi: I went to Harvard. 

Nyge: Yeah. 

Emi: So I did, I did get into Harvard. 

Nyge: (laughing) Yeah.

Emi: No. I mean, that's the, yeah… I mean, and you hope, and I think when you're in that situation, you know, you hope that's going to make everything better.

Nyge: Right.

Emi: And it changed my life, right?

Nyge: Yeah.

Emi:  Like, my life is so different today because I got in there, and I got full financial aid. It's, like really, the dream.

Nyge: Yeah. 

Emi: And also at the same time, I still struggled with, “Okay, where am I going to stay?” You know? And when I was 18, I started dating a 27-year-old who ended up being a really bad guy. And I knew that the relationship was really bad. But, it was like, that was where I was going to stay during school breaks.

Nyge: Right.

Emi: You know, and I didn't want to go back to sleeping in my car. I did not want to feel that desperation of asking for help. And like, unfortunately, that situation is all too common. And it really took until, like, my junior year of college when I had an internship lined up to be able to walk away and to start living, like, my best life.

[YR Music BREAK]

Now let’s get back to our conversation with Emi Nietfeld. And how she thinks people can best support people who are homeless…

Emi: I think it's really important to listen to what someone's telling you that they need. 

Nyge: Mmhmm.

Emi: And when I was 16, like, if you asked me what I needed, I was like, “I need help applying to college.” Because, I was like, “I can deal with this like, immediate living situation, but I need there to be a way out.” And some people thought that was like, a dumb request. But like, I knew what I needed, and I think a lot of people do. And, it might not always be like, intuitive to you what somebody's asking for. But I think, as much as we can kind of meet people where they are, that's really helpful. And I think just, also realizing that navigating resources can be really, really hard. And there are shelters. There are like crisis centers. There are food banks. But like, when you're in the middle of it, that is not a time when you want to be doing all this research. And so I think, even just like, being non-judgmental, but helping somebody find that information can really make the difference between them being able to access it, and them feeling like they're alone and there's nothing that they can do.

Nyge: Definitely. On an advocacy level, how can people stand up against youth homelessness?

Emi: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's really important to understand where youth homelessness is coming from and the different underlying reasons for it. And so, one huge reason is the lack of affordable housing. And electing politicians who will promote policies that will lead to, like, more housing, more affordable housing, programs for youth who are like, pregnant or parenting, or otherwise on their own. I think part of it is recognizing how many homeless youth are LGBTQ. There's so many statistics that are like… I don't know, it's a huge number. And that's often part of the reason why somebody ends up homeless. 

Nyge: Yeah.

Emi: And I had been in a foster care situation that was – like, you know, as far as they go – pretty good. Like, I was pretty lucky with this family. But then eventually, the topic came up that I might be queer, and they were basically like, “You have to leave. You know, we don't feel comfortable with you in our home.” And I wasn't even like, “Oh, I'm gay.” I was like, “Well, I might be gay.” You know? That was what I was going through at the time. And they just didn't feel safe, like, with another girl at home. And so that's something that unfortunately happens all the time. And so that is a lot about like, you know, like educating foster parents. Like, trying to recruit foster parents who are accepting. And also just, like, LGBT-specific programs to try to help people, like, stay in their homes, stay off the streets. And then, I think the final thing is really like, looking at the foster care system – where there's an estimate that 22% of youth who were in foster care end up experiencing homelessness. 

Nyge: Yeah. 

Emi: And a big part of that is like aging out. Right? When people exit the system without a family, part of that is like, reunifications that don't quite work out. And then also just asking, like, “Hey, why was somebody in foster care in the first place?” You know? And I think for me, it was, it was a good thing for me to be in that system. But, for a lot of people, it's not. And you end up, like, severing family ties that are really valuable and that would have helped somebody out later. Yeah. So, I think it's all kind of interconnected.

Nyge: What do you think needs to change in order to address this issue?

Emi: Oh, man…

Nyge: I know… Easy question. (laughing)

Emi: (laughing) Easy question. Man... I think, as Americans, we have a tendency to, to look for individual responsibility all the time. And we're pretty obsessed with individual responsibility. 

Nyge: Mmhmm.

Emi: And so even if you're a teenager, like I was, you know, it's kind of like, “Well, what did you do to get yourself into this situation?” Like, “Couldn't you have stayed with, like, that person?” Or like, “Couldn't you have made better plans?” And I think that it's really important to see the causes of youth homelessness, and homelessness in general, as systemic and to look at the people who are experiencing it, as people who are really doing the best that they can. And then I think it takes being aware of the impact rate and looking at how damaging it can be even to be homeless for a little while. Where people are way more likely to experience abuse, assaults, and just like rack up extra trauma that they're going to carry around with them for the rest of their lives – that was basically, completely avoidable if they had, had a place to live.

Emi: So for the specific case of youth who've aged out of foster care…

Nyge: Mmhmm

Emi: There are people working on really amazing, innovative programs to help transition those youth into permanent housing. And I think that those people deserve so much credit in those programs. And those things include, like, setting up a dorm at a community college, so that [when] you are 18 or 21 and you age out, you can go live in the dorm. And colleges have gotten a lot better at this over the past years, of recognizing – not just for foster youth, but that – so many college students are dealing with food insecurity or aren't sure where they're going to stay during breaks. And so moves, like, just keeping the dorms open during winter break or during spring break – that can make such a huge impact on somebody's life. And just like, create stability at a time when it's so important to have.

Nyge: Where can, where can people find or engage with your work and especially and then also your book? So, let's start with your book - first. Where can people find and get that? And then let's get into where people can find and engage with you as a person.

Emi: So my book is called “Acceptance.” It's from Penguin, and it's available wherever you buy books. And then I am at EmiNietfeld.com. It's a little hard to spell, but however you try, Google will get you there. 

Nyge: (Laughing)

Emi: And I have a monthly newsletter, and I'm on social media. And I'd love to stay in touch.

Nyge: Dope. Dope. Dope. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show again. It’s been a pleasure to have you back.

Emi: Thank you so much. I really, really appreciate it.

That’s Emi Nietfeld, and with hopes of making your Googling easier - you can find her work at EmiNietfeld.com. That’s Emi Nietfeld dot Com.

[YR Music]

Nyge: Youth Homelessness is a massive problem in our country and across the world, but something that will stick with me moving forward from this episode is that we need to listen to more people who are unhoused. People will let you know what they need, and if we just extend that help wherever you can, it can truly go a long way. And, to hear what young homeless people are experiencing, we need to start having conversations with people too many folx pretend not to see. 

If you or anyone you know needs immediate housing support, reach out to the National Safe Place Network. Just send a text with the word “HELP” to the number 4HELP, which is 44357. Again, just text the word “HELP” to 44357. Or call 1-800-RUNAWAY, that’s 1-800-786-2929. Again, that’s 1-800-786-2929. 

[YR Music]

Nyge: Adult ISH is produced by YR Media, a national network of young artists and journalists creating content for this generation.

Our show is produced by Fredia Lucas and by me: your boy, Nyge Turner.

Our engineer is James Riley, and our audio engineering fellow is Christian Romo.

YR’s director of podcasting is Sam Choo.

YR’s senior director of podcasting and partnerships is Rebecca Martin.

Our interns are Menelik Ransom and Jalen Black.

Original music for this episode created by these young musicians at YR: 

Christian Romo, Anders Knutstad, Jacob Armenta, Chaz Whitley, Michael Diaz, Sean Luciano Galarza, and David Lawrence.

Music direction by Oliver “Kuya” Rodriguez and Maya Drexler. 

Creative Direction by Pedro Vega Jr. Designs by Jess Smolinski, Marjerrie Masicat, and Brigido Bautista. Project management by Eli Arbreton. 

Special thanks to Kathy Chaney and Kyra Kyles.

Adult ISH is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a network of independent creator-owned, listener-supported podcasts. Discover audio with vision at Radiotopia.fm.

And if you haven’t reviewed our show on Spotify or Apple Podcasts, please be sure to do so. Five stars is much-appreciated.

You can follow us on all the socials at @YRAdultish. And on that note, we'll see ya later.

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