The negative effects on teen mental health

Teen Homelessness in Phoenix, Arizona

Growing Pains: Housing and homelessness in Phoenix

The city of Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs have experienced explosive growth over the last few years, welcoming transplants from neighboring states and beyond who have been drawn in by promises of year-round sunshine and infinite jobs. But just like an adolescent seemingly growing a foot overnight, the city cannot escape the associated pains of such rapid growth. The influx of new residents has placed a burden on the housing market, driving rent and home prices sky high, limiting inventory, and pricing out the working class. There are now a record number of people in Arizona experiencing homelessness, including families with youth under age eighteen. Teens already face the challenging developmental task of transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and those experiencing homelessness carry additional hardships that take a great toll on their physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

Just how much has homelessness grown in Phoenix?

According to Maricopa County’s official 2023 Point-in-Time Count, over 9,000 people are experiencing homelessness on any given night in Arizona’s largest county. Of these, approximately 1,133 are children 17 and under. Some are with family members in emergency shelters or on the streets, while others are doing their best to survive on their own. The 2023 report numbers 563 families experiencing homelessness, a 17% increase from 2017. While homelessness is a short-term experience for many, the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness (defined as having unsuitable housing for 12 or more months) has increased 103% since 2017. Phoenix’s homeless population is remaining unhoused for longer periods, and the majority (51%) are living on the streets or in unsuitable dwellings rather than in designated shelters.

Though this official count illuminates the growing crisis, it cannot provide the full picture, as it does not include hard-to-find individuals—those staying in hidden areas, such as vehicles, or on the couch of a friend or family member. Families and unaccompanied youth may be more likely to utilize such spaces as makeshift housing, making it difficult to accurately determine the number of homeless teens.

How homelessness impacts Phoenix teens

It is common for teens to continually ask questions, whether about themselves, their loved ones, or their environment. These questions may be conscious or unconscious: Am I fitting in? Am I good enough? Do my parents actually care about me? But those experiencing homelessness cannot begin to ask such questions until another, more glaring one is answered: Am I safe? Homeless youth have the added stress of instability, which can impact every aspect of their day-to-day lives. The Institute for Children, Poverty, & Homelessness estimates that nationally, 1 in 3 homeless teens gets four or fewer hours of sleep per night. Homeless teens are twice as likely as housed teens to not have breakfast, and they have higher rates of school absenteeism and dropout. They are also more vulnerable to violence, being three times more likely than housed teens to be deliberately hurt by someone they are dating. Those without a caring adult in their corner are more vulnerable to exploitation, as this leaves them exposed to dangers like human trafficking.

In Phoenix, teens experiencing homelessness have the added hazard of heat vulnerability; living in a car or on the streets, where tree coverage or other shade is insufficient, exposes youth to the elements. As 2023 was Phoenix’s hottest year on record—with 133 days reaching at least 100 degrees and 54 days reaching at least 110—the city’s homeless teens currently risk heat-related illness and death over a large portion of the year. Of the 425 heat deaths recorded in Maricopa County in 2022, over 40% are estimated to have been individuals experiencing homelessness.

How homelessness impacts teen mental health

Such negative impacts on homeless teens’ physical health can directly affect their mental well-being. Sleep disturbances, poor nutrition, and a lack of felt safety can cause or exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Common adolescent challenges, such as increased academic pressure and poor body image, can be magnified for a teen experiencing homelessness. 

Teens without reliable daily transportation to school report more feelings of isolation and loneliness than their housed peers. Homeless teens are also twice as likely to experience bullying at school, whether due to limited socialization with peers or poor access to running water and hygiene supplies. The building frustration these teens often experience from such hardships beyond their control can prompt behavioral outbursts, increasing their risk of school detention or suspension.

All these factors can pile onto the shoulders of a teen experiencing homelessness, weighing them down with low self-esteem and feelings of hopelessness. Once hopelessness becomes a constant companion, a teen is more likely to take drastic action—such as substance use, self-harming, or suicidal behavior—to end their suffering. While approximately 1 in 5 youth in the general population have or will develop a serious mental illness, this rate balloons to 1 in 2 for those who are homeless. And 1 in 3 homeless teens have attempted suicide. Limited access to mental health services is a significant concern for homeless teens in Phoenix, as Arizona ranks 47th in the nation in available behavioral health workers.

Support services for homeless teens in Phoenix

Homelessness is a growing crisis for teens in Phoenix, but several organizations are dedicated to providing services for those in need:

How can we help address teen mental health and homelessness?

Teens experiencing homelessness lack two crucial adolescent needs: safety and stability. We can improve physical and mental health outcomes for these youth by donating to organizations like those listed above that offer critical support. Some also need volunteers to assume administrative roles or engage in political advocacy. Though Phoenix is a rapidly growing city with increasing numbers of homeless youth, gaps remain in its homeless services. It has too few youth-focused shelters and programs specifically dedicated to addressing homeless teens’ mental health. Advocacy can help ensure all youth receive the services they need. 

Staying informed about available resources is one of the best ways to support a child in need. You can learn more about mental health treatment options for troubled teens in Phoenix here