Sometimes, the young Americans who’ve endured abuse, rejection, hunger and homelessness beat the odds and go on to do great things. But that is not the norm, and too many homeless youth fall victim to violence, malnutrition, alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution and trafficking.
On any given night, approximately 41,000 young people will sleep on the streets, under bridges, in cars, on friends’ couches or in other places, separated from their families. Often, they’re hidden in the shadows, advocates say, because youth and young adult homelessness is vague and not talked about—as if it doesn’t exist.
But each year, an estimated 4.2 million youths and young adults, 700,000 of whom are minors, experience some period of homelessness, according to a study by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
Advocates argue that youth homelessness has generally been ignored but is an emerging issue, particularly since COVID-19, that it differs from chronic homelessness among single adults, and that it’s cheaper to solve the problem before young people become chronically homeless adults.
Increasingly, state lawmakers agree, with at least 21 states passing bills to address youth homelessness in the last couple years.
Anything but Safe
Home should be a place of safety and security, “a place to let go and be free and have a sense of normal,” Elaine Williams says. She experienced what it’s like to be homeless after running away as a youth and now advocates for equity for communities of color.
Osimiri Sprowal left home after her family rejected her for coming out as a lesbian. “Home is something that should not be able to be taken away, a place to return to if you leave,” she says.
But for many young people, home is anything but safe. Family conflict and abuse, rejection of a youth’s sexual orientation or activity, school problems, and substance misuse are some risk factors, according to the Congressional Research Service. Kids who failed to graduate or get a GED or who are mentally ill are at greater risk as well. But kids run away from home for many different reasons.
These kids often face traumatic experiences and abuse and run away. We want them to get the help they need, whether it’s a driver’s license, enrolling in school or [finding] mental health services to deal with the traumas and experiences and learn coping mechanisms. —Missouri Representative Sheila Solon, who sponsored a bill to address youth homelessness
Homelessness among young people occurs in rural and urban areas equally, according to researchers with the University of Chicago. The difference is that there are fewer shelters and other resources in rural areas, forcing those facing homelessness to migrate to cities. Michael Outrich was one of them.
Outrich became homeless in rural Appalachia when he aged out of foster care at 18. “It’s a hidden problem and there’s definitely a lack of resources,” he says. “People live in backwoods campsites or in cars or empty mobile homes. In urban areas, you see them on the street or in tent cities, but in rural areas they’re living off the back roads in the holler.”
But even in cities, youth homelessness is largely invisible, says Amanda Clifford, who became homeless after serving a two-year prison term and now is co-director of the advocacy group A Way Home America. “I don’t think adults understand how prevalent homelessness is,” she says, “because young people are so creative and resilient and stay out of sight and remain invisible, hiding in plain sight. So many young people are house surfing, staying on a friend’s couch one day and another classmate’s or co-worker’s another day. By all means, they’re functioning young adults without a place to call home, but they are not given the same attention as the chronically homeless.”
People tend to think of homeless youth as rebellious, Outrich says. “Some people want to paint [homeless] youth and young adults as making bad decisions, but they refuse to acknowledge the desperation and circumstances that got them there in the first place,” he says. “Youths don’t run away due to rules in the house.” Oftentimes, he says, the young people are abused, and when there is nobody to help, they flee.
Time Is of the Essence
The longer young people live without a place to call home, the harder it is for them to become contributing members of society, according to Chapin Hall research. On their first night of being homeless, 22% of all homeless youth are solicited for sex, according to the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research, and within 48 hours of leaving home, 1 in 3 teens on the street will be lured into prostitution, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports suicide is the leading cause of death among unaccompanied youth. In 2019, 63% of LGBTQ youth and 47% of non-LGBTQ youth reported being physically harmed by others while homeless, according to The National Homelessness Law Center.
“We can prevent a lot of tragedy,” Outrich says, “if we intervene when people are [at risk of becoming homeless or have just become homeless] and give them the resources they need to get on a pathway of bettering their lives. The return on investment is astronomical.”
Kids on the street, who don’t have their basic needs met, are not necessarily making great decisions about their future, including decisions about college and careers, he says. “They might make the decision that pays off the soonest. ‘Why would I go to school if I’m starving and don’t have a roof over my head?’ If I’m not in a stable situation, I’m not thinking about college or a job.”
But, Outrich says, it doesn’t have to be this way. “We can set youths up for basic needs and a network of support. If we pay it forward, the dividends will pay it back. The opportunity for us is now. When these kids get older, it’s more difficult because life becomes more complex and they’re looking over longer periods of trauma.”
Legislative Solutions Offered
Republicans and Democrats alike are paying attention to youth and young adult homelessness not only because they feel a sense of compassion, but also because they realize that addressing youth homelessness early on can help avoid more complicated problems down the road. Youth homelessness is multifaceted and involves a range of responses. In the last couple years, at least 32 states have introduced legislation to address the issue, and 21 states have passed bills that:
- Address the educational needs of homeless youth.
- Push back the age at which foster care ends.
- Require faster responses to reports of abuse in foster care.
- Provide housing for postsecondary students who are homeless.
- Make health care easier to obtain.
- Appropriate funds for homeless youth services, including shelters and drop-in centers.
- Create a state office of homeless youth.
- Waive some parental consent requirements.
- Require a state plan to address youth homelessness.
- Require that youth in public systems be discharged to stable housing.
- Enable homeless youth to obtain identification cards, driver’s licenses and birth certificates.
Legislation from last year includes Colorado SB 106, which allows homeless youth age 15 and older to receive shelter and services without parental consent, and North Carolina HB 1105, which appropriated $150,000 to provide homeless students with virtual learning support during the pandemic.
A few states have examined whether their homeless youth drop-in centers have enough staff to provide legal advice, counseling and medical care, along with adequate bathroom facilities and other services.
Clifford, who now advocates for homeless youth, says young people should be advised about “the cliff effect”—the sudden and often unexpected decrease in public benefits that can occur with a small increase in earnings.
“It was really tricky and frustrating to navigate,” she says, “because I was right at the threshold, so if one week I worked too many hours then I would lose the total amount or my food assistance would go down. Essentially, it de-incentivized me to work. I was a student, so in addition, I had to be really careful what scholarships I received because they could count as income.”
In 2019, Maryland enacted HB 911, which established a work group to study shelter and supportive services available for unaccompanied homeless minors. The work group is charged with identifying available public- and private-sector resources and whether there are gaps in the system. The legislation also requires the committee to make recommendations on legislation, regulations, policy initiatives, funding requirements and budgetary priorities to address the needs of homeless minors.
Foster Care Connection
Some lawmakers look to changes in foster care as a partial solution. “A turning point [for Washington] was when other members started understanding a lot of youth homelessness boils down to the flaws in the foster care system,” Washington Representative Michelle Caldier (R) says. “I understand why kids would not want to live in a group home setting or a night-to-night placement. I was in foster care when I was young, and I do short-term foster care placements for kids that have a lot of challenges.”
Approximately 20% of the children who age out of foster care at 18 have no home to go to. Half will end up incarcerated or homeless, according to Alliance for Children’s Rights. Since 2019, 30 states have extended foster care from age 18 to 21.
Ending foster care at 18 is too early for many young people, Outrich says. “Kids may be adults legally at 18, but not developmentally,” he says.
Young people leaving the justice system face similar obstacles, Clifford says. “My involvement with the justice system led to my homelessness,” she says. “Some young people are on the streets first, then get in trouble and end up involved with the justice system. That’s something I wish legislatures would pay attention to more—when young people leave county jail or prison, what extra plans are put into place for affordable housing?”
Missouri’s Bipartisan Effort
Last summer, Missouri lawmakers collaborated across the aisle to pass HB 1414, which addresses some of the concerns about the foster care system. It requires the Department of Social Services to use a risk-assessment checklist to determine whether to remove children from their homes and gives foster parents access to children’s medical records before they are placed in their home. The law requires free birth certificates for homeless youths and access to Medicaid and mental health services for those who lack health insurance.
The bipartisan effort was led by Representatives Keri Ingle (D) and Sheila Solon (R) and House Minority Leader Crystal Quade (D). Ingle wanted to make it easier for homeless kids to get driver’s licenses and Social Security cards so they could apply for jobs and college. Solon wanted to reduce the amount of time foster kids must wait after there’s a report of abuse or neglect in a foster home. And Quade believed homeless kids should have access to health care without red tape.
“These kids often face traumatic experiences and abuse and run away,” Solon says. “We want them to get the help they need, whether it’s a driver’s license, enrolling in school or [finding] mental health services to deal with the traumas and experiences and learn coping mechanisms.”
The bill’s bipartisan support was crucial to its success. “At the end of our service, what matters is that we can say we did good things for children’s lives,” Solon says. “I would have felt the same sense of accomplishment no matter whose bill it was. There were an equal number of Republicans and Democrats at the bill signing. Everyone worked together and everyone took a lot of pride in the bill.”
Quade agrees. “As long as you’re OK with not getting the credit,” she says, “you can get some really good bipartisan policy enacted. I think that is so important for legislators everywhere to recognize.”
Talk to Young People
When considering any kind of legislation related to youth homelessness—from making it easier to get Social Security cards to providing mental health services—advocates emphasize the importance of including the organizations that work with young people.
“They are the ones who know what tiny policy changes will globally impact individuals,” Quade says. “It’s great to talk to other states, but it’s more important to talk to the organizations that are working with the populations. Then look at your state statutes to see what changes need to be made to make it easier for them to do their jobs.”
And don’t forget to include young people in the conversation.
“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” says Williams, the homeless youth advocate. “We need to see young people as experts.”
“Talk to us,” Sprowal says. “Talk to the real experts.”
Colleen Smith is a freelance writer based in Denver.