Your Family Shelter: Are Teenage Boys Allowed?

written by Sharon McDonald
December 20, 2013

In the early 1990s, I was working in a community-based social service program for people experiencing homelessness. Our “living room” program was a place where people were welcome, some basic needs were met, relationships were forged, and social workers were on hand to help link people to available services and supports. It often served as people’s first contact with the city’s homeless service programs – a place where they could get information about how the shelters in the city worked.

I can remember clearly explaining the family emergency shelter policies to a woman who had just become homeless. The local family shelter program could accommodate her and her young children, but would not admit her adolescent son. The shelter program did not accept teen boys with their parents. He might be able to be housed in a runaway and homeless youth program if another alternative could not be found for the whole family.

Separating teen boys from their parents always struck me as a cruel policy. Agency leaders didn’t intend for the policy to be harmful, but the consequence certainly was. It forced parents to choose between separating in order to access shelter and staying together outdoors.

Today, as a field, we are much more aware that people who are homeless have experienced high rates of traumatic events. Many homeless service programs train their staff to be trauma-informed, sensitive to the needs of people who have been exposed to trauma and may be dealing with its repercussions.

And yet, we haven’t fully dismantled policies in our homeless service programs that can in and of themselves be traumatizing for families. Asking parents to separate from their children, and children from their parents, while in the midst of a housing crisis that has already rocked the family has got to be one of most traumatizing experiences that homeless families encounter.

The reason I remember this woman and her teen son over 20 years later is because of the impact it had on her son. He understood the dilemma his mother faced. She refused to be separated from her son and would rather be together outdoors if an alternative could not be found. This teen boy decided to take things in his own hands: he ran away before shelter could be found so his mother and his siblings would be okay.

So, the good news is that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) put an end to this practice. Local programs receiving HUD funding must shelter families intact. They must admit teen boys with their parents.

I can also report that we were able to locate the teen son a few short hours later. He had run to the home of an extended family member. We were also able to find a situation that would allow them to stay together.

The not-so-good news is this practice still occurs. Is it happening in your community?