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The National Perspective

By Matt Adams and Anna Simonsen-Meehan

Homeless Youth: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Lack of data and resources leaves this group extremely vulnerable.

Homelessness services tend to focus primarily on the needs of older, chronically homeless singles and to a lesser extent families with young children. Falling between the cracks are unaccompanied homeless youth, an especially vulnerable group. Because homeless youth are notoriously difficult to study and perceived as delinquent runaways, data and services for this group are severely lacking. Instead of receiving the supports necessary to develop the social and emotional skills required for independent living and productive adulthood, homeless youth are often left to fend for themselves on the street or to “couch surf.” The combination of an unstable childhood and lack of safe alternatives leaves homeless youth at greater risk of physical and sexual victimization, mental and physical health problems, and substance-abuse issues than their housed peers. Given the lack of awareness of, data for, and resources available to unaccompanied youth and the acute vulnerabilities specific to this group, meeting the federal goal of ending youth homelessness by 2020 will require a stronger commitment at the state and federal levels to provide more dedicated youth shelters and supportive services, as well as youth-specific nationwide censuses.1

Hiding in Plain View: Lack of Knowledge Hinders Effective Solutions

The extent of youth homelessness remains elusive. For one thing, lack of a standard definition of “youth” makes surveys and data comparison difficult. Researchers tend to either limit their study to homeless youth under the age of 18 or choose an arbitrary age range. Meanwhile, many data-collecting youth-specific programs choose to serve children and young adults up to age 24, recognizing that while 18 legally defines individuals as “adults,” developmental adulthood is attained later in life. These programs realize that persons who have not reached their mid-20s cannot be assumed to function successfully in a homelessness-service environment or society at large. Youth at this stage in life have not yet reached full brain maturation, need to develop the life skills necessary for independent living, and are often still in the process of finishing their education and vocational exploration.

Figure 1

In 2011 youth facilities funded under the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) served a total of 44,173 homeless children, youth, and young adults up to age 24, and outreach personnel made 750,905 contacts with youth on the street (Figure 1). Only 3.4% of contacts resulted in shelter entry.2 To compare, data compiled through the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), which restricts the definition of “youth” to unaccompanied individuals under 18, enumerated a mere 14,678 sheltered youth in 2010, one-third (32.4%) less than in 2008.3 The nation’s school system, which employs a broader definition of homelessness, identified 65,317 homeless youth in the 2009–10 school year, a number that has increased by half (51.3%) since 2007–08 (Figure 2).4

Most national studies attempting to estimate the total number of youth who experience at least one episode of homelessness each year have restricted their samples to include minors only, leading the commonly cited yearly figures in the 1.6 –1.7 million range to understate the actual size of the population. Adding youth aged 18 –24 could bring the number up by 204,000 – 406,000, or to a potential maximum of 2.1 million.5 These estimates do not account for repeat runaway and homelessness episodes over the course of a youth’s adolescence and young adulthood. While researchers indicate that a large portion of the 1.6 –1.7 million homeless minors return home relatively quickly, youth homelessness tends to be episodic rather than chronic.6 One longitudinal study conservatively estimated that runaway youth ran away 3.2 times on average by age 18, while 12.6% ran away more than five times.7

Contributing to the lack of data is the challenge of identifying and tracking homeless youth. While homeless single adults and fam ilies tend to access shelter programs when available, unaccompanied youth often distrust and avoid adults, law enforcement, and service providers due to past negative experiences with adult caregivers and other authorities. In addition, a minor entering shelter or receiving medical attention is likely to require parental notification or consent, although laws vary by state.8 Minors suffer from the scarcity of youth programs nationwide and are shutout of adult shelters, while youth over 18 may feel intimidated by adult shelters or the older, chronically homeless singles staying in them.9 Homeless youth are therefore more likely either to reside doubled up with friends, live on the street, or be precariously housed in unusual and hard-to-access locations, seeking to blend in when possible.10 The often-transient nature of youth homelessness makes longitudinal studies particularly difficult to conduct.11 Because no in-depth national research on homeless youth exists, studies focused on homeless youth in a single state or city provide the only insights on the issues facing unaccompanied youth.12

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