Homeless encampments spill onto countless street corners across Albuquerque, from tents haphazardly lining sidewalks and alleys in the International District to the makeshift structures that have commandeered much of Coronado Park. Their occupants are hard to miss — hyper visible in their vulnerability.

That’s not the case for teens and young adults, who often go unseen — making them invisible to the providers, schools, and local agencies charged with their oversight, according to Cathleen Willging, a researcher who helms the southwest center of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. Their invisibility also makes it near-impossible to estimate their actual numbers — an estimated 2,300, according to Willging’s count.

PIRE-Southwest, a behavioral health research center dedicated to identifying and eliminating health disparities among communities of color and people facing social and economic disadvantages, recently oversaw a comprehensive study on youth experiencing homelessness in Bernalillo County. In collaboration with local government agencies and funded by CYFD, WiIlging and her team canvassed parks, shelters, transitional living programs and drop-in centers over three weekends, counting the number of young people, aged 15 to 25, who lack stable housing and asking questions about their lives. The study has prompted support for a young adult shelter for people aged 18 to 25 in Albuquerque.

Searchlight New Mexico spoke with Willging about why young people are so difficult to track, and the report, published in April, that documents PIRE’s findings.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Searchlight New Mexico: Was there an aha moment when you recognized the need for a study like this?

WiIlging: I don’t know if we had an aha moment per se. But many of the studies we’ve already done primed us for this work. We have a study where we’re working with schools to make a safer and more supportive environment for sexually and gender diverse people, and because of that study we pay close attention to what comes out in the state’s Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, which sheds light on the growing issue of housing insecurity among young people, particularly LGBTQI+ students. 

Searchlight: Can you talk about the process of finding and talking to these youth? Did you have to gain their trust? 

WiIlging: Oh, for sure. We did have to gain their trust and take multiple steps. The first was bringing together a youth advisory council of people — youth with relevant lived experience — to give us some guidance. We organized small group meetings with youth who’ve experienced homelessness in the past to get their ideas of where to encounter other young people who might be unhoused. We worked with New Day Youth and Family Services and YDI street outreach teams. They would take our staff to the different sites around Albuquerque and give us lots of advice on what they do to connect with youth successfully. Like when you’re approaching someone in a public location, how to do that respectfully. You always go in with cold water, snacks, and resources. 

Cathleen Willging in her office at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Albuquerque Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Searchlight: What’s the profile of a young person experiencing homelessness?

WiIlging: There’s no single profile, although youth who are indigenous or LGBTQI+ youth appear to be at greater risk. But across the board, the youth that we talked to were very diverse, both in terms of their sociocultural backgrounds and their life experience. I would say many of these youth have been impacted by structural inequality. And when I’m talking about structural inequality, I’m talking about poverty — poverty not just impacting them but also their families.

Many of the youth were affected by complicated family dynamics, not always having access to positive social support. Some of these youth felt very isolated. Many were struggling with mental health and substance use issues.

Searchlight: Would you say that these young people are less visible than their adult counterparts? 

WiIlging: They are totally less visible. They’re just not congregating in the same public spaces as the adults. You can go to some of these parks here in Albuquerque where you have these encampments. You’re definitely more likely to find fewer people age 25 and under. Many of these youth are couch surfing and they’re going to stay in places where they’re outside of the public view. There’s a reason for that — like staying off the radar of law enforcement or not wanting to be seen by friends.

Searchlight: I imagine that you glimpsed just a fragment of their lives in these brief encounters. Were there specific moments that still stay with you?

WiIlging: There was a young adult I remember clearly. He was struggling with homelessness because he lost his parent who was his primary caregiver. It was somebody who had a stable upbringing, and the death of the person who took care of him contributed to the situation. With some of these youth you think about your own kids. 

I remember interviewing another young person with a grammar school education. There was a vehicle circling and circling waiting for her to be done with this survey, and it prompted our concern that she was a victim of trafficking. We’re pretty sure people underreported sex work in the survey.

Searchlight: Is there a final straw that pushes young people into homelessness? Or are there bigger structures at play?  

WiIlging: The poverty, the educational inequities…they all play roles. And we don’t have systems to support the youth, specifically [those] who face mental health concerns or substance use issues. The final straw, it could be so many things.

When you’re moving from place to place, you don’t have that opportunity to benefit from the school community or develop lasting relationships with your peers. You have young people leaving home because their primary caretaker might have used drugs or alcohol, or maybe because of their own substance use behavior. They might have a history of being in a correctional facility, which makes it hard to get housing because of discrimination. That was a big challenge. And then there were those who a bad roommate situation or went through a breakup and didn’t have money to pay rent.

Searchlight: Did they talk about their dreams for the future? 

WiIlging: They want to complete their education. They want to have a job. They talked about their ideal living situation: an apartment, a small house, healthy relationships with a significant other and with family and friends. They want some privacy and maybe even have pets. They want safety. They want what other youth want. 

Raised in the northern New Mexican village of Truchas, Alicia Inez Guzmán has written about histories of place, identity, and land use in New Mexico. She brings this knowledge to her current role at Searchlight,...