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Youth Homelessness Overview

Causes and Consequences

Definitions

Federal Policy

State Legislative Activity

NCSL Resources

What's New?

External Resources

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.

Causes and Consequences of Youth 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. 

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 600 children in the United States ran away from their foster care home or other placement in 2019. 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 youth experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to attempt suicide as their peers who are not homeless. Also, youth who are homeless often experience a significant disruption in their education due to the transient nature of homelessness.

Definitions

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. Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago’s Voices of Youth Count adopts the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) definition of homeless youth.

The RHYA 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.

Federal Policy

The American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law in 2021, provides states with funding to support youth experiencing homelessness. $800,000,000 is to be used for the identification, enrollment and school participation of youth experiencing homelessness. $100,000,000 is designated to address learning loss among homeless children and youth in foster care during the COVID-19 pandemic. The act also allows homeless youth and foster youth to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit, even if they are full-time students and working. 

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

Federal Youth Homelessness Policy Timeline

  • Children's Bureau established to investigate and report on all matters related to children's welfare.

  • Federal Transient Bureau assists states in developing aid for homeless children and adults. Civilian Conservation Corps. establishes comps for more than 1 million older youth.

  • Social Security Act is amended (PL 81-734) to permit use of child welfare funds for the return of a runaway child under the age of 16.

  • Social Security Act is amended (PL 85-840) to provide federal funds for the return of a runaway child under the age of 18.

  • The Runaway Youth Act as Title III of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (PL 93-415) is enacted. The legislation establishes what is now referred to as the Basic Center Program.

  • Congress and the president reauthorize the Runaway Youth Act (PL 95-115) and broaden its scope to include "otherwise homeless youth."

  • Runaway and Homeless Youth Act is reauthorized (PL 100-690). A provision is added to establish the Transitional Living Program.

  • The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act is reauthorized (PL 106-71). Funding and administration of the Basic Center Program and Transitional Living Program are merged under the Consolidated Runaway and Homeless Youth Program.

  • The Runaway, Homeless and Missing Children Protection Act (PL 108-96) is enacted to reauthorize the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act for FY 2004 through FY 2008.

  • The Reconnecting Homeless Youth Act (PL 110-378) is enacted to reauthorize the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act for FY 2009 through FY 2013.

  • Runaway and Homeless Youth program grantees begin reporting demographic and outcome data on program participants to the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), a database used by homeless assistance providers that receive funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

  • The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act is reauthorized (PL 115-385) for FY 2019 and FY 2020.

The United State Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) was created by Congress in 1987 to coordinate the federal government’s collaborative response to homelessness. It works in partnership with 19 federal agencies and a national network of state and local affiliates (see graphic below). In 2010, USICH announced its goal to end youth homelessness by 2020 as part of its Opening Doors Strategic Plan, the nation’s first comprehensive homelessness strategy.

USICH’s 2012 Framework to End Youth Homelessness expands upon specific supports and strategies for meeting its homeless youth goals. In 2015, USICH announced its vision for the community response to youth homelessness, which identified four core outcomes and instructions for the system collaboration necessary to achieve those goals. In 2017, USICH also established criteria and benchmarks to assess progress toward ending youth homelessness. The criteria and benchmarks were updated in 2018.

U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness

19 Federal Member Agencies

Department of Health and Human Services Department of Education Department of Labor Department of Housing and Urban Development Department of Veterans Affairs
Department of Agriculture Department of Commerce Department of Defense Department of Energy Department of Homeland Security
Department of Interior Department of Justice Department of Transportation Department for National and Community Service General Services Administration
Department of Management and Budget Social Security Administration United States Postal Service White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative  

State Legislative Activity in 2020

Homelessness is a growing concern for legislators, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. While homelessness is challenging for anyone, youth experiencing homelessness have their own unique challenges requiring special legislative attention. NCSL tracked 95 bills in 2020 that directly addressed youth homelessness. Bill topics included shelters and services, education, driver licenses, identification cards, vital records, funding, awareness and prevention, consent, and administration and councils. States also considered nine bills addressing housing, human trafficking, foster youth, and other related issues. Twelve of these bills were enacted, with Maryland and Washington enacting the most bills.

Shelters and Services

Fourteen states introduced 18 bills related to shelters and services for youth experiencing homelessness. Most often the bills sought to reduce barriers that youth experience in accessing resources. Numerous states considered revising minimum age requirements to access shelters and shelter services, and New York proposed legislation that would create and maintain a public database of available beds at residential facilities for youth experiencing homelessness. California considered increasing the number of days youth have access to shelter and introduced a bill establishing an internship pilot program for youth experiencing homelessness. Three of these bills were enacted.

Education

Thirteen states introduced 34 bills related to K-12 and post-secondary education for youth experiencing homelessness. Most of these bills focused on helping students meet graduation requirements and support students’ basic needs. States also considered establishing homeless and foster student liaison positions in public universities and colleges to help homeless students and students in foster care apply for financial aid and other assistance. Six bills related to educating youth experiencing homelessness were enacted.

Driver Licenses, Identification Cards, Vital Records

Ten states considered 10 bills designed to increase access to driver licenses, identification cards, and vital records for youth experiencing homelessness. Most of the bills included fee waivers for youth experiencing homelessness. Of the 10 bills considered, only one was enacted in 2020.

Funding

Eleven states introduced 20 bills to allocate funds for issues related to youth homelessness. These included funding for state agencies to provide services to unaccompanied homeless youth and specific initiatives such as Florida’s “Changing the Narratives' Ending Youth Homelessness Initiative.” States also considered appropriations for housing as part of their coronavirus response. Ultimately, three funding bills were enacted.

Awareness and Prevention

Four states introduced four bills and two resolutions to build awareness of youth homelessness. None of the bills were enacted; however, Pennsylvania adopted two resolutions designating a specific week and date to foster awareness of the issues that students experiencing homelessness face.

Consent

Seven states introduced 12 bills revising requirements for youth experiencing homelessness to consent to services. Some states considered lowering the age required to consent to shelter, mental health and physical health services. Three bills were enacted.

Administration and Councils

Nine states considered 14 bills that would make administrative changes to support youth facing homelessness. Some of these bills delineated compliance responsibilities, while others considered forming advisory committees that could inform state policymakers on a variety of issues, such as food and housing insecurity, youth empowerment and civic engagement. Two of the bills were enacted.

Housing

Pennsylvania and Illinois addressed housing for youth experiencing homelessness with two bills, neither of which was enacted. Both bills concerned housing accessibility for students in higher education settings.

Human Trafficking

Washington and Minnesota introduced four bills related to human trafficking of youth experiencing homelessness. None were enacted. These bills sought to bring awareness to human trafficking issues and allocate money to benefit sexually exploited youth.

Foster Youth

California, Missouri and Washington introduced three bills regarding foster youth experiencing homelessness. None of the bills were enacted. Washington considered extending foster care services to 18-year-olds who are enrolled in a secondary education program or secondary education equivalency program and can establish that their parents were not fulfilling their parental responsibilities before the youth reached age 18. The eligibility standard would not have required the youth to have been a dependent child under Washington's child abuse and neglect statutes.

NCSL tracks state legislation addressing youth homelessness in its Housing and Homelessness Legislation Database.

External Resources

The resources below are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily reflect the positions of NCSL.

About This NCSL Project

NCSL’s Denver-based Children and Families Program conducts research and analysis on human services issues, tracks legislation and provides learning opportunities, consultations and technical assistance for legislators and legislative staff. Denver staff can be reached at (303) 364-7700 or cyf-info@ncsl.org.

NCSL staff in Washington, D.C., track and analyze federal legislation and policy and represent state legislatures on issues before Congress and the administration. Washington staff can be reached at (202) 624-5400 or cyf-info@ncsl.org.