‘Young, Unhoused and Unseen’ examines ‘borderline epidemic’ of youth homelessness across Greater Philadelphia

The podcast and multimedia project produced by WHYY News and Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting examines the crisis of youth homelessness.

2 woman with a young child sitting on the ground in the park.

Young moms kill time at Love Park in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

This story is from Young, Unhoused and Unseen, a podcast production from WHYY News and Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting.

Find it on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Troy Mouzon weaved through the crowded streets of Center City with a goal in mind. Only interrupting his brisk walk to greet familiar faces, Mouzon passed in front of Philadelphia City Hall and placed his glasses atop his head.

Mouzon, a street outreach worker with SELF Incorporated, has a knack for remembering faces and identifying people in need. He interrupted the interview after he spotted two young men at a nearby SEPTA station. They declined Mouzon’s help.

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“They say they’re not homeless, but they’re out here every day — all night,” Mouzon said.

Mouzon pushed forward to LOVE Park, where he met with several young mothers and their families. They’re homeless. Initially mistaken for an undercover police officer, Mouzon was eventually able to settle their uneasiness and discuss a list of assistance available to them.

Through his job, Mouzon is seeing more youth and young adults than he’s accustomed to seeing. He called it a “borderline epidemic.”

“These people are too young. You’re 21, 22, 23, 24 years old, and you out here and you live on the streets with a family? That’s crazy. In the richest nation on this planet, that makes no sense whatsoever,” Mouzon said.

Youth homelessness is not as visible as adult homelessness. Young unsheltered persons may be found in encampments and walking city streets. Oftentimes, they couch surf, stay with friends, or live in cars. Driven into hiding by the stigma associated with homelessness, unhoused young people face an uphill battle to receive housing and supportive services while coming of age.

Without an accurate count of how many young people are experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia, city officials face obstacles in delivering services to help them. In 2022, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the city of Philadelphia approximately $8.8 million to enact a plan to make young adult homelessness “rare, brief, and non-recurring.”

The money is intended to create more housing units specifically designed for young people, and that solution is meant to propel more services. From the housing affordability crisis and stagnant wages to the United States’ history of racism and anti-LGBTQ discrimination, numerous upstream drivers of homelessness remain, according to Liz Hersh, the former director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services.

Yvonne Latty, director of the Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting, and WHYY News Reporter Kenny Cooper reported across the Greater Philadelphia region and had extensive conversations with various officials, unhoused young people, experts, and advocates about their experiences, roadblocks to progress, and potential solutions.

Read about the podcast’s five episodes below.

Episode 1: The money

Difficult to measure and even harder to spot, youth homelessness is an invisible crisis facing Philadelphia. To address it, city officials applied for a sizable grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to dramatically reduce it. HUD awarded the city $8.8 million in 2022 and now, it’s up to the city to get results. The City of Brotherly Love is depending on a plan created for the youth by the youth. We hear from a young woman who is one of the plan’s co-authors, and examine the totality of the problem.

Episode 2: Young moms

Being a parent is already hard, but in the City of Brotherly Love, roughly one in three unhoused young adults are pregnant or already have a child. Young moms on the streets face a difficult task of finding support services and a roof to put over their heads. Obstacles like stagnant wages and the rising cost of housing are problematic enough, but experts say there’s another stumbling block: “networked poverty.” With their support systems made up of people who are similarly in need of assistance, the difficult task of getting help becomes nearly impossible. In this episode, we follow a SELF Incorporated outreach worker as he connects with three unhoused young mothers in LOVE Park.

Episode 3: Forget Me Knot

At the intersection of Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic, opioid crisis, and abusive households are the residential placements like group homes who are left to pick up the pieces: the more than 600 young people who are driven out of their homes. We travel to the heart of North Philadelphia to Forget Me Knot Children and Youth Services, a group home and emergency youth shelter in North Philadelphia. There, staff manage to create stability and a loving environment for the children despite the lack of funding.

Episode 4: An ‘Ark of Safety’ for LGBTQ+

Often expelled from their homes, LGBTQ+ youth represent 25% to 40% of Philadelphia’s young people experiencing homelessness. Navigating the unhealed trauma of abuse and rejection while homeless would be insurmountable. Enter the Ark of Safety, Philadelphia’s only shelter dedicated solely for LGBTQ+ people. We hear from its founder and executive director, Tatyana Woodard, and a couple of the shelter’s young residents as they unpack past experiences with the goal of recreating what was lost.

Episode 5: Unsheltered in suburbia

Despite the perception of widespread wealth, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties are generally experiencing an increase in youth homelessness. The housing affordability crisis in Philadelphia’s suburbs and the problem’s lack of acknowledgment is leading to a growing population of unsheltered youth in encampments — like the Schuylkill River Trail in Pottstown. In this episode, we go from the forests of Montgomery County to Breaking Bread Community Shelter in Upper Darby to analyze the issue, probe the obstacles, and evaluate possible solutions.

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