Each year, an estimated 4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness, of which 700,000 are unaccompanied minors, meaning they are not part of a family or accompanied by a parent or guardian. On any given night, approximately 41,000 unaccompanied youth ages 13-25 experience homelessness.
The Voices of Youth Count from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago also found that:
- One in 10 young adults ages 18-25, and at least one in 30 adolescents ages 13-17, experience some form of homelessness unaccompanied by a parent or guardian over the course of a year.
- 29% of homeless youth report having substance misuse problems.
- 69% of homeless youth report mental health problems.
- 33% had once been part of the foster care system.
- 50% of homeless youth have been in the juvenile justice system, in jail or detention.
- 27% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) youth who are homeless reported exchanging sex for basic needs compared to 9% of non-LGBTQ youth who reported having to exchange sex for basic needs.
- 62% of LGBTQ youth report being physically harmed while experiencing homelessness while 47% of non-LGBTQ youth reported being physically harmed while homeless.
- The lack of a high school diploma or General Equivalency Diploma (GED) is the number one correlate for elevated risk of youth homelessness.
Causes and Consequences of Youth Homelessness
Many factors increase a young person’s odds of experiencing homelessness. Demographic risk factors for becoming homeless include being Hispanic or black; parenting and unmarried; or LGBTQ, with LGBTQ youth having more than twice the risk of being homeless than their cisgender or heterosexual peers. In a March 2019 report, the Congressional Research Service identified family conflict and family dynamics, a youth’s sexual orientation, sexual activity, school problems, pregnancy and substance use as primary risk factors for youth homelessness. Also noted in the congressional report, females are more likely than males to run away, and among white, black and Hispanic youth, black youth have the highest rates of running away with approximately half of youth running away before the age of 14.
Children in foster care face multiple factors that increase their risk of homelessness, including the number of foster care placements, history of running away from placements and time spent in a group home. According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, over 500 children in the United States ran away from their foster care home or other placement in 2017. Youth in congregate care are also more likely to run away from care than youth in traditional foster care or out of home placement. The age at which a youth enters foster care also influences their risk of running away from care. Youth who are age 15 when they first enter foster care have the highest risk of running away while in care.
Human development also plays a role. Rational decision-making, inhibition, planning and reasoning are all stifled until young people mature, making young people biologically more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors, such as unsafe sexual activity and substance use, than more mature adults. Without safe and permanent homes and caring adults, runaway and homeless youth are at even greater risk of engaging in high-risk behaviors or putting themselves in unsafe or risky situations.
The consequences faced by youth experiencing homelessness are vast and require coordination across the education, child welfare, juvenile justice, health and human services systems. Runaway and homeless youth are vulnerable to multiple threats, including not having their basic food and shelter needs met, untreated mental health disorders, substance use, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV infection, sexual exploitation (including survival sex to meet basic needs), physical victimization and suicide. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in three teens on the street will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home and the American Academy of Pediatrics finds suicide is the leading cause of death among unaccompanied youth. Also, youth who are homeless often experience a significant disruption in their education due to the transient nature of homelessness.
The definition of homeless youth varies across state and federal agencies and leading national organizations. For example, the National Alliance to End Homeless defines homeless youth as unaccompanied individuals ages 12 to 24, while the National Coalition for the Homeless defines homeless youth as individuals under the age of 18. Others define youth as individuals between the ages of 13 and 25.
The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act defines homeless youth as individuals under the age of 18 or between the ages of 16-22, depending on the program the youth is participating in. Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, “homeless children and youths” are broadly defined, without a specific age range.
Researchers also categorize homeless youth into typologies, which itself fosters debate. Typologies include: runaways, throwaways, street youth, systems youth, transient but connected, high risk and low risk. These terms reflect the diversity of experiences and backgrounds among homeless youth, who often do not fit into a single category.
The Runaway Youth Act, signed into law in 1974, is the only federal law focused on unaccompanied homeless youth. Later renamed the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, the legislation has been reauthorized five times. The act is administered by the Family and Youth Services Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The act, as amended, authorizes federal funding for three programs—the Basic Center Program, Transitional Living Program and Street Outreach Program.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 was the first major federal legislative response to homelessness. Title VII of the act includes provisions to ensure the enrollment, attendance and success of homeless children and youth in school. Under the act, schools must work to eliminate transportation barriers and other impediments that may prohibit students from attending school. Schools also must appoint a liaison to work with homeless students and their families.
The Chaffee Foster Care Independence Program provides states with funding to support youth expected to age out of foster care and youth ages 18 to 21 who were formerly in foster care. Funds can be used for housing, educational services and independent living services. The Fostering Connections Act of 2008 increased federal funds available to states to extend assistance to foster youth until age 21 as long as the youth is in school, working or has a medical condition that prevents them from participating in those activities. Services can include housing assistance, vocational and college help, and counseling.
*Federal timeline adapted from the Congressional Research Service report on Runaway and Homeless Youth: Demographics and Programs