I am not sure what is harder, raising a teenager during a pandemic or being a teenager during a pandemic. When our country and community shut down, teenagers were stuck at home with virtual education and lack of any routine, devoid of typical teen traditions and milestones. Soon, local law enforcement, social services, and non-profit agencies noticed an uptick in reported runway incidents. With lockdowns leaving youth at home with financially and emotionally strained caretakers, they became vulnerable to violence and abuse, what the World Health Organization referred to as a “hidden crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Every November, we shed light on runaway and homeless youth as part of National Runaway Prevention Month. It is no surprise that students experiencing homelessness struggle emotionally, academically, and socially, with many of them dropping out of school or turning to harmful behaviors to survive. The pandemic has only emphasized an ongoing problem in our community.

With the additional stress of a global pandemic and restricted social interactions, these struggles were only compounded. Even before the pandemic, the National Runaway Safeline determined that 47% of runaway youth experience conflict with parents or guardians at home. Even worse, nearly half of runaways experience abuse at home, with more than 30% experiencing sexual abuse. Up to 40% of youths run away due to disagreements over their gender and/or sexual identities. With COVID restrictions in place, families experienced far more conflict and strain, and those already experiencing abuse were spending far more time with their abusers.

Local community agencies like Park Place Outreach, Greenbriar Children’s Center, Family Promise of Greater Savannah, Savannah/Chatham CASA, and others work daily to support youth experiencing homelessness and foster care, the ultimate goal being to ensure that all children in our community have a safe place to call home. Since March, we have learned of the trauma that our teens have been dealing with long before a pandemic and a fight for social justice. Quarantine allowed us to listen and learn, and we gained empathy and understanding, allowing us to better serve and support our young people.

Park Place and our partner agencies are raising awareness of the issues faced by runaway and homeless youth and providing our community with resources and strategies to help prevent youth from running away from home. When combatting the issue of youth homelessness, we know that no two situations are the same. Some teens just need someone to talk to, while others need help finding shelter, food, medical assistance, or counseling. With all the uncertainty 2020 has brought us, one thing is for sure; this group of young people needs all the help they can get.

ABOUT PARK PLACE OUTREACH YOUTH EMERGENCY SERVICES
Park Place Outreach Youth Emergency Services, 514 E. Henry St., supports runaway, homeless, and at-risk youth, ages 11-21, through a variety of residential and after-school programs. Serving teens since 1984, Park Place’s mission is to provide services to at-risk youth and their families, increase their functional level, and reunify families whenever possible. The Emergency Shelter is open 24 hours a day and provides a safe, secure, and loving environment. Park Place Outreach is the only facility in Savannah where youth can self-admit without an agency referral. Park Place Outreach’s other programs include the Street Outreach Program to identify homeless and nearly homeless teens and young adults and provide them with support services to get off the streets, Family Preservation for Teens to help teens remain safely in their homes to maintain family stability, and the new Mission: Possible Transitional Living Program for males ages 16-21.

Park Place Outreach – Youth Emergency Services is an equal opportunity provider and employer. With the generous support of local organizations and individuals, the Park Place Outreach Shelter has helped more than 6,500 individuals. For more information, please visit http://parkplaceyes.org or find us on Facebook.