State Policy Scan
State policymakers are increasingly enacting legislation to meet the needs of youth and young adults at risk of or experiencing homelessness. Recent legislation has broadly included adopting state definitions of youth homelessness, addressing the disparate outcomes of vulnerable populations and protecting the federally guaranteed educational rights of homeless youth. States have also passed legislation to address common barriers to housing stability and better align systems serving youth. In addition, legislatures are also enacting legislation to prevent homelessness before it happens.
Homeless youth often face barriers to enrolling, attending and thriving in school. Not having a secure home environment, reliable transportation or a quiet place to study can make learning much more difficult. Recent data suggests that students experiencing homelessness have a high school graduation rate of 68% compared to the national average of nearly 86%. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states are required to report high school graduation rates of homeless students, but it remains a difficult statistic to accurately measure.
State policymakers have prioritized bolstering educational support for students experiencing homelessness. Legislation focused on youth homelessness and education includes expanding reporting requirements, awarding partial scholastic credit to youth who must transfer schools due to housing instability, increasing access to social workers in K-12 education and providing rental assistance to students’ families experiencing homelessness.
California requires all local educational agencies to establish homeless education program policies that are consistent with state laws and requires these policies to be updated at least every three years. Colorado provides access to school social workers in public elementary schools with the K-5 Social and Emotional Health Act.
Kentucky offers coursework completion alternatives for students experiencing homelessness and exempts these students from any additional requirements a local school board may impose beyond the state’s minimum high school graduation requirements. Oregon has a pilot program through which certain school districts make one-time distributions to families of students to assist with unpaid rent, past-due utilities or move-in expenses.
Most youth and young adults need financial assistance to attend college. This is particularly true for homeless youth. At least 15 states—Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington—have policies to help homeless college students attain degrees. Meanwhile, at least nine states—California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Nevada and Oregon—exempt homeless students from paying tuition and fees or give residency status and in-state tuition rates to homeless students.
Florida, for example, waives tuition and fees at all Florida College System institutions and state universities. Nevada waives tuition and fees for all residents of the state experiencing homelessness provided they maintain at least a 2.0 GPA each semester. Louisiana authorizes its public postsecondary education institutions to grant resident status to youth who are homeless and 19 years old or younger. Tennessee requires postsecondary educational institutions to designate a staff member to serve as a homeless student liaison who assists homeless students who are enrolled or planning to enroll.
Ending the pipeline from foster care to homelessness is a significant opportunity for legislatures. Half of the youth who leave foster care are not reunited with their families. Many are not ready for independent living, and too often they become homeless. Some states have addressed this by providing transitional housing assistance. Others have extended the time youth and young adults can stay in foster care.
According to the Children’s Bureau, 48 states, the District of Columbia and American Samoa allow 18-year-olds to extend their out-of-home care and continue receiving services from the social services agency. Most states allow youth to remain under agency supervision until they are 21 years old; however, six states—Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia—have extended foster care support beyond the age of 21 and up to 26 in some situations. Oregon and Utah are the only two states that do not offer continued foster care and supervision beyond age 18; however, they do provide supportive services to youth formerly in foster care up to age 21.
Thirty-three states allow youth who leave foster care when they are 18 years old to request a return to foster care at any point before age 21. Iowa and Vermont allow the request before age 22, and Connecticut permits a return to foster care until age 23. Youth are allowed to return to foster care to help further their education, employment, personal safety or self-sufficiency. Illinois has an interagency agreement between the Department of Children and Family Services, the Illinois State Board of Education and several other government agencies to provide homelessness prevention services to youth in care and young adults who are aging out of, or have recently aged out of, the custody or guardianship of the Department. Prevention services include support with housing, education and employment.
Youth experiencing homelessness may resort to criminal behavior for survival and this can lead to involvement with the juvenile justice system. Nearly 62% of youth experiencing homelessness reported being arrested at least once in their life. Prevention policies such as housing assistance, trauma-informed care and substance use counseling can reduce contact with the juvenile justice system.
Virginia requires local social services departments to provide up to six months of housing support to anyone 18 to 21 years old who turned 18 in foster care or while in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice. Housing support includes direct rental payments to help build self-sufficiency.
Washington requires the Office of Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection, in coordination with other state offices, to create a rapid response team that supports youth and young adults exiting a publicly funded system of care, including the juvenile court system. The rapid response team supports youth and young adults who are at risk of becoming homeless and who are exiting a publicly funded system of care.
Minor Consent for Services
Accessing essential services (e.g., housing, health care and legal services) often is challenging for youth experiencing homelessness, especially in states that require parental consent. Some state legislatures have taken steps to enable unaccompanied minors to access legal support, medical services, housing and other basic needs.
Oregon allows pregnant or parenting youth to contract for housing without a parent or legal guardian. Indiana permits shelters to provide services to homeless youth without notifying parents or guardians. Missouri allows homeless youth ages 16 or 17 to apply for admission to a shelter, engage in a housing contract, apply for employment, enter high school or apply for college admission, establish a bank account, obtain medical care, purchase a vehicle, apply for student loans and receive domestic violence or sexual assault victim services.
In some states, youth do not have the right to consent to health care which can limit their ability to access preventive and emergency health care. At least 35 states and the District of Columbia allow minors to consent to health care. Some states, like Alabama, permit youth older than 14 to consent to medical, dental or mental health services. Other states, including Maine, allow youth to consent to the same services, provided they are living separately from their parents or legal guardians. Arkansas authorizes a McKinney-Vento liaison to consent to medical treatment for a homeless minor.
The District of Columbia allows, on a temporary basis, emancipated minors, unaccompanied homeless minors, minors who are or have been pregnant or minors who are separated from their parents or legal guardian without support to consent to receive a vaccine. Florida allows unaccompanied homeless youth at least 16 years old to consent to medical, dental, psychological, substance abuse and surgical diagnosis and treatment, including preventive care for themselves or their child, if the youth is unmarried and has custody of the child.
Driver’s Licenses, IDs and Vital Records
Everyone needs a government-issued identification card or driver’s license to apply for housing, open a bank account, get a job or receive public assistance. Homeless youth who cannot access these vital identification records are limited in their ability to become self-sufficient.
Minor youth under 18 years old often need a parent or guardian’s signature or a parent or guardian to be present when applying for identification. Many states also require fees and proof of residency to apply for state-issued identification cards. A government-issued identification card is required to obtain a copy of a birth certificate which homeless youth often lack. Some states have taken measures to remove these barriers by:
- Waiving or reducing fees for non-driver identification cards and/or birth certificates.
- Allowing applicants to prove residency with a signed affidavit, regardless of homeless status.
- Allowing applicants to submit an affidavit or certification of homeless status as documentation of residency.
- Waiving the requirement that a parent or guardian be present.
Indiana allows youth experiencing homeless to obtain photo identification cards and driver's licenses, as well as copies of their birth certificate, without charge or consent of a parent, guardian or custodian. To do so, the youth must meet certain guidelines and possess a waiver affidavit. Kentucky waives birth certificate fees for any youth experiencing homelessness. The exemption applies to anyone experiencing homelessness under the age of 25. New Mexico waives all fees for birth certificates for homeless individuals and removed restrictions on access to vital records for unaccompanied youth and youth experiencing homelessness.
States have taken a variety of approaches to offer and regulate access to homeless shelters and supportive services. Common policy elements include age requirements, training for shelter staff and access to wraparound services.
Utah allows any youth at least 15 years old and managing their income to access shelter services. Wisconsin allows 17-year-olds to access shelters if the minor is not under the supervision of a county department, a child welfare agency, the department of corrections or under the authority of the court. New York requires all employees of programs that provide care to runaway and/or homeless youth to complete training related to LGBTQ+ runaway and homeless youth.
In 2019, Maryland created a work group to study shelter and supportive services for unaccompanied homeless minors. The work group issued a report to the governor detailing policy recommendations to reduce barriers to services for youth experiencing homelessness. Recommendations include allowing minors to consent to housing and shelter services and establishing a registry of service providers that work with youth experiencing homelessness.