conversations on the fringe

Unaccompanied Youth

Unaccompanied homeless youth are young people experiencing homelessness who are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian. 4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness each year. The prevalence of youth homelessness is similar in rural, suburban and urban areas.

Homelessness is associated with an 87% likelihood of dropping out of school. At the same time, the highest risk factor for youth homelessness is the lack of a high school diploma or GED. Youth without those basic education credentials are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness.

Homelessness among unaccompanied youth is most commonly caused by severe family dysfunction, and exacerbated by poverty.  Family dysfunction includes abuse, conflict, and substance abuse.  Research shows that 20-40% of unaccompanied homeless youth were sexually abused in their homes, while 40-60% were abused physically. Family conflict over sexual orientation and gender identity plays a role in some youth’s homelessness, as an estimated one-third of unaccompanied homeless youth identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning. Research also has found a clear link between parental substance abuse and youth running away from home. Family homelessness also contributes to youth homelessness: a recent study of homeless and formerly homeless youth found that 47% experienced homelessness both with their family, and on their own.

Unaccompanied youth are at a much higher risk for labor and sex trafficking, assault and other forms of victimization than their housed peers. Most unaccompanied youth are unable to access safe housing or shelter, for a combination of reasons, including: being too young to consent for services without a parent; fear of child welfare involvement; and the lack of services overall: more than half of those who seek shelter cannot access it because shelters are full. The risks for unaccompanied youth also extend to many infants and toddlers, as research indicates as many as 20% of homeless youth become pregnant. In fact, unmarried parenting youth have a 200% higher risk of homelessness than youth without children.

42 U.S.C. § 11434a(2)
The term “homeless children and youth”—

A. means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and
adequate nighttime residence…; and

B. includes —
i. children and youths who are sharing the housing of
other persons due to loss of housing, economic
hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels,
hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the
lack of alternative adequate accommodations; are
living in emergency or transitional shelters; or are
abandoned in hospitals;
ii. children and youths who have a primary nighttime
residence that is a public or private place not
designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping
accommodation for human beings…;
iii. children and youths who are living in cars, parks,
public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard
housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings;
iv. migratory children…who qualify as homeless for the
purposes of this subtitle because the children are
living in circumstances described in clauses (i)
through (iii).

Pursuing unaccompanied youth should be a focal point of youth-focused programs. Programs should aim to keep unaccompanied youth safe, facilitate access to secure permanent housing for them. This is best accomplished with inter-agency collaboration and strategies that recognize the unique developmental needs and strengths of young people.

What is your program/organization doing to address the needs of unaccompanied youth?

Homeless Youth and Foster Care

Youth experiencing homelessness seem to be drawn to our center. They often congregate there to cool off in the air conditioning, get some cold water and snacks, hygiene supplies, take a sink bath in our bathroom, use the free wifi to look up resources, apply for jobs, communicate with others, and make plans for the day. It’s almost like they use it as a home base.

I also think they come here because we remember their names. That’s important. We learn their stories, their fears, hopes, and hurts. They are seen, and for many, for the first time in a long time.

Tens of thousands of young people experience homelessness each year. On the streets, they face serious dangers. Young people often resort to sex work to make money for food, and many turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to deal with the trauma or abuse they have experienced at home. We also hear these stories first hand.

More than half of homeless youth became homeless for the first time because they were asked to leave home by a parent or caregiver.

On average, the youth became homeless for the first time at age 15.

While on 7% of the total youth population identifies at LGBTQIA+ they account for over 40% of all homeless youth.

The average youth spent nearly two years living on the streets.

Fifty-three percent of youth were unable to access a shelter because it was full.

The types of service needs youth identified focused on meeting basic needs — access and challenges related to safe shelter (55.3%), education (54.6%), and employment (71.3%) — and basic supports like transportation (66.6%), clothing (60.4%), and laundry facilities (54.0%).

While homeless, 78.6% of participants had slept in an emergency shelter or transitional living program.

More than 60% of youth in the study were raped, beaten up, robbed, or otherwise assaulted while homeless; 14.5% of participants had been sexually assaulted or raped; 32.3% had been beaten up; 18.3% had been assaulted with a weapon; 40.5% had been threatened with a weapon; and 40.8% had been robbed.

Almost two-thirds of participants (61.8%) reported symptoms associated with depression and were at risk of experiencing clinical depression. Nearly 72% reported having experienced major trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse or witnessing or being a victim of violence, at some point in their lives.

In the sample group, 41.1% identified as Black or African American, 33.3% as white only, 25.7% as Hispanic or Latino/Latina, 21.7% identified as being two or more races, 3% identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, 0.5% identified as Asian, and 0.2% identified as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

Fifty-four percent identified as male and 45.6% identified as female.

Nearly 30 % of participants identified as part of a vulnerable population.

At the time of the interview, 14.2% of the participants reported caring for children and 9.0% reported being pregnant.

Only 29.5% of respondents reported that they had the option of returning home.

We must do better. The systemic abandonment they experience it traumatic. More often than not the most effective first step is creating an environment free of judgment. Next, it’s likely housing, which is complicated if they are minors. One of the easiest ways to address the housing issue is to become a licensed foster caregiver and to let your agency/DCFS know that you want older kids.

A majority of foster caregivers want young children or babies. While we understand that, it’s these teens that rarely find or remain in adequate placement. So, they end up on the streets and age/or age out of the system. This cannot be acceptable to those of us who are called to love.

If you are interested in fostering older youth/teens, reach out to your local foster care agency and just begin exploring the idea. You don’t even have to commit to doing anything, just start looking into what it might look like to house and love an at-risk teen.

September Is National Suicide Awareness Month

September is National Suicide Awareness Month.

The organization I started, Conversations on the Fringe, ran a two-year-long study on the lives of LGBTQIA+ youth in Central Illinois. Each student engaged in face-to-face interviews, submitted written responses to an extensive questionnaire, or completed an online survey. We had over one hundred participants. The questions focused on family acceptance/rejection, coming out, stressors, intersections, trauma/bullying, social alienation/acceptance, substance abuse/mental health issues, suicidality, and faith experiences.

The results of our study closely reflected national statistics that revealed LGBTQIA+ youth are more susceptible to suicidal ideation than their straight peers.

  • Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24.
  • LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth.
  • LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.
  • Of all the suicide attempts made by youth, LGB youth suicide attempts were almost five times as likely to require medical treatment than those of heterosexual youth.
  • Suicide attempts by LGB youth and questioning youth are 4 to 6 times more likely to result in injury, poisoning, or overdose that requires treatment from a doctor or nurse, compared to their straight peers.
  • In a national study, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25.
  • Trans youth are 12 times more likely to take their own lives than straight peers.
  • LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.
  • 1 out of 6 students nationwide (grades 9–12) seriously considered suicide in the past year.
  • Each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.


There is an immense need for more safe and affirming spaces around the country for queer youth.

What are you doing to create life-saving spaces for youth in your community?

Homelessness Is More Complicated Than You Think

If you’ve ever NOT given a person experiencing homelessness money because you just knew they would buy alcohol or drugs, remember this next time…

On cold nights spent outside, alcohol provides temporary warmth. It is also nerve-wracking to sleep in a shelter and difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Alcohol can help an individual relax so they can sleep. Lack of sleep exacerbates mental health issues.

Withdrawals are worse than you could ever imagine. If someone needs to “get their sick off” so be it. Being in severe withdrawal is what drives people to desperate behaviors.

Meth is a stimulant. If you are sleeping outside, vulnerable to anyone and anything, being able to stay vigilant is necessary for survival. This is especially true if you are a woman, trans, or youth.

Being without a home also usually means not eating on the regular or not eating nutritiously. Cigarettes can act as an appetite suppressant. Smoking cigarettes may give some temporary relief from hunger pains.

Bottom line, stop assuming you know the story that brought this individual to this point in their life. Most of us have never known what it feels like to be so desperate that we would have sex for a warm place to sleep or to steal something to survive, or how life-controlling a substance use disorder is.

A large number of people who have not experienced homelessness want to moralize the decisions of poor people, perhaps to comfort themselves about the injustices of the world. For many, it’s easier to think homeless people are, in part, responsible for their suffering than it is to acknowledge the situational factors.

And when you don’t fully understand a person’s context — what it feels like to be them every day, all the small annoyances and major traumas that define their life — it’s easy to impose abstract, rigid expectations on a person’s behavior.

Next time you encounter someone on the side of the road holding a sign, just give them money. It doesn’t matter is it’s the change in your pocket or a $10 bill. Whatever you can give, please, just do it.

The main message it sends to the individual is “I see you and you matter.” Your money will not likely change their situation but it still matters to the individual just trying to get through the day.

Fringe Podcast Ep. 4: Meth in the Midwest

Fringe Podcast Ep. 4: Meth in the Midwest

Warning – Explicit Language – Not suitable for young listeners.

Meth is making a huge comeback across the country. As all eyes are on heroin and fentanyl, this powerful substance has come back with a vengeance.

This is the story of one man’s journey from a normal childhood, to a substance use disorder, to meth cook, to prison, and back to life again. Anthony’s story is a story of criminal behavior that nearly destroyed a family and his struggle to rebuild his life on the other side of prison. This is a story of hope and resilience and can serve as an inspiration to anyone wondering if they can ever recover from a life of crime and addiction.

What We Are Reading

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture

“This may be one of the most challenging books (to my own toxic masculinity) that I’ve ever read. I still have so much inner work to do.”

                                                                                                       – Founder of CotF Chris Schaffner

Here’s an excerpt:

It’s not okay to hit the girl you like. And it’s not okay to hit the girl you love.

The world around you tells women that they should always nod politely no matter what they’re feeling inside. Don’t ever take a polite nod for an answer. Wait for her to yell it: “Yes!”

Not everyone gets sex when they want it. Not everyone gets love when they want it. Things is true for men and women. A relationship is not your reward for being a nice guy, no matter what the movies tell you.

Birth control is your job, too.

Don’t ever use an insult for a woman that you wouldn’t use for a man. Say “jerk” or “shithead” or “asshole”. Don’t say “bitch” or “whore” or “slut”. If you say “asshole”, you’re criticizing her parking skills. If you say “bitch”, you’re criticizing her gender.

Here are some phrases you will need to know. Practice them in the mirror until they come as easy as songs you know by heart: “Do you want to?” “That’s not funny, man.” “Does that feel good?” “I like you, but I think we’re both a little drunk. Here’s my number. Let’s get together another time.”

Fringe Podcast Ep. 3: Bryce Foster // Recovery Anithero


Episode #3: Bryce Foster // Recovery Antihero

Bryce Foster is one of those unique people you can’t ever forget and he’s quickly become one of my closest friends and we are partners in crime doing harm reduction work in the midst of an opioid pandemic. His story is inspiring and hysterical. He’s a pretty smart and a lot irreverent. Also, he’s tried it all and eventually discovered a path that works for him. Listen in while he shares his story. You just might learn something.

Fringe Podcast Ep. 2: Harm Reduction

Episode #2: Harm Reduction

We are at the 2018 Harm Reduction Conference in New Orleans. Between the awesome workshops and stuffing beignets into our mouths, we sat down with four beautiful, badass, love warriors from the harm reduction field. We talked about LGBTQIA+ youth, homelessness and housing, serious mental illness homeless outreach and jumping fences to love on the most marginalized. We can’t wait for you to listen.

Our merry band of ragamuffins include:

Loren Phillips: Outreach Worker with a large mental health organization in Chicago

Christopher Powers: Psychotherapist and harm reduction counselor in San Francisco

Kimber Brightheart, LCSW: Independent contractor at the Midwest Harm Reduction Institute, founder of Queerplay, and harm reduction therapist in private practice

Valery Shuman, ATR-BC, LCPC: Senior Director at Heartland Alliance Health, Heartland Center for Systems Change, and Midwest Harm Reduction Institute

And me, Chris Schaffner: Founder of Conversations on the Fringe, DOPP Grant Coordinator, JOLT Harm Reduction Center Program Manager

Fringe Podcast Ep. 1: Rape Culture

Episode #1: Rape Culture

An interview with Melissa Dessert, LCPC who has extensive experience working to combat the impact of rape culture on college campuses. Melissa has been helping victims of sexual assault since the late 80s and is a local expert on trauma. Also in this podcast is Trudy Schaffner, a social worker and mother of 3 teenage girls. Both lend their vast knowledge and experience to this really difficult and complex issue.

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