On November 14, 2017, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago released the results of a groundbreaking national survey, Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America. The research, part of the Voices of Youth Count (VoYC) initiative, challenges many assumptions in current homelessness policy and practice – not only for addressing youth homelessness, but for all forms of homelessness.
Perhaps the most significant paradigm buster revealed by the research concerns the leading risk factors associated with youth and young adult homelessness. VoYC finds that:
- Lack of a high school degree or GED is the top risk factor for youth and young adult homelessness. In fact, youth without a high school degree or GED are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness than peers who completed high school.
- The second highest risk factor is having a child: unmarried parents are three times more likely to experience homelessness than non-parenting peers. This finding is especially alarming because homelessness in early childhood can have lifelong consequences.
- The third highest risk factor is having a low-income: youth reporting annual household incomes of less than $24,000 had a 162% higher risk of experiencing homelessness.
These findings, as well as the connections the research shows among child, youth, and adult homelessness, necessitate a fundamental reframing of the conversation on homelessness. VoYC finds that youth homelessness starts early in life, with the majority of homeless young adults experiencing homelessness in childhood or adolescence. It also finds that more than 1 in 3 homeless young women are pregnant or parenting.
Other research demonstrates that youth homelessness is by far the largest pathway into adult homelessness. Taken together, these findings reveal how child homelessness can lead to youth homelessness, and then adult homelessness, where children of homeless adults may start the cycle again.
Finally, the research shatters the notion that homelessness can be “ended” simply by providing housing to youth who are currently homeless, and by focusing on a narrow definition of homelessness. VoYC demonstrates that there is a constant stream of new youth into homelessness; that “couch-surfing” is often unsafe; and that many serious challenges such as, addiction and mental health problems, stand in the way of getting out of homelessness.
It’s time for a change of direction. You can help turn the tide.
1. There are three bipartisan bills before Congress, including the Homeless Children and Youth Act (HCYA), that can help turn the tide. Ask your Member of Congress to co-sponsor these bills.
Bipartisan Bill #1: Homeless Children & Youth Act (HCYA, H.R. 1511/S. 611)
- Nearly two-thirds of youth who reported more visible homelessness (”explicit”) also reported less visible homelessness (“couch-surfing”) over the same time period. Less visible forms of homelessness were particularly prevalent in rural communities, which had the same rates of homelessness as urban and suburban communities. Despite this reality, HUD’s strict definition of homelessness prevents youth and young parent families who are staying in less visible situations from accessing existing programs.
- 28% of youth were reported as having substance use problems, and 66% were indicated as having mental health difficulties, while experiencing homelessness. These findings indicate that supports beyond housing are necessary to ensure sustainable exits from homelessness. Yet HUD has imposed short-term, housing-only models like Rapid Rehousing on communities, while defunding programs like Transitional Housing and Supportive Services, which are more appropriate for youth and young adults (including young families).
- The data show that child homelessness often leads to adult homelessness, as the majority of homeless unaccompanied young adults had experienced homelessness or housing instability in childhood or adolescence. Yet HUD continues to prioritize programs serving chronically homeless adults.
HCYA offers a response that corresponds with the evidence:
- Since young people move regularly between more and less visible homeless situations, HCYA aligns HUD’s definition of homelessness with other federal programs, such as public schools and Runaway and Homeless Youth Act programs, so that HUD’s definition will include both forms of homelessness for children, youth, and families. This alignment will remove barriers to existing programs, streamline referrals, and improve collaboration.
- HCYA responds to the high levels of mental health needs and substance abuse among homeless youth that VoYC found by prohibiting HUD from imposing on communities adult-centered priorities and short-term, housing only approaches. It allows communities to use funds in ways that match the evidence and the needs.
Bipartisan Bill #2: The Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act (RHYTPA, H.R. xxxx/S. xSxx)
- A minimum of 700,000 youth ages 13-17 were homeless over the previous 12 months.
- Youth who are pregnant or parenting are more than three times as likely to experience homelessness, and more than 1 out of 3 homeless young women are pregnant or parenting.
- The prevalence rate (percentage) of youth homelessness is the same in rural communities as in urban and suburban communities.
RHYTPA responds to these challenges by:
- Increasing the maximum length of stay for youth in Basic Center programs from 21 to 30 days. This will allow these programs more time to stabilize homeless minors and provide appropriate connections and services.
- Supporting Maternity Group Homes, which provide longer-term housing with supportive services for pregnant or parenting homeless youth, and increasing the maximum eligible age for services to 24, at the option of each provider.
- Reauthorizing these vital programs, which provide funding for host homes and for programs to be flexibly implemented so that they are equally effective in suburban, urban and rural communities.
Bipartisan Bill #3: The Higher Education Access and Success Act for Homeless and Foster Youth Act (HEASHFY, S.1795/H.R. 3740)
- Youth and young adults with lower household incomes were more than twice as likely to experience homelessness as young adults with higher incomes. However, when controlled for income, unemployment was not strongly correlated with youth homelessness. This suggests that employment will not by itself solve youth homelessness. Instead, the focus should be on lifting youth out of homelessness through helping them obtain better paying jobs and the education and training necessary to secure such jobs.
- Only 29% of young adults experiencing homelessness were enrolled in an educational program.
HEASHFY helps improve access to and success in higher education by:
- Streamlining and removing barriers to financial aid.
- Requiring colleges and universities to designate single points of contact to assist homeless and foster youth and connect them with resources.
- Requiring colleges and universities to develop a plan to assist homeless and foster youth to access housing resources during and between academic terms.
2. There is vital work to do to ensure that today’s homeless children and youth do not become tomorrow’s homeless adults. We must:
- Ensure access to early childhood education, so that young children are set on a path to success;
- Close the high school graduation gap for students who are homeless; and
- Help youth obtain the post-secondary education that is their best hope for a higher-paying job.
Learn more about each of these areas, and how you can support children and youth at every stage of their development.
3. It is critical to raise awareness about child and youth homelessness in our communities, in our schools, and in early childhood programs. We’ve prepared some infographics and a short video that can be used in presentations, staff development, trainings, and online social media conversations.
VoYC provides striking evidence in support of SchoolHouse Connection’s mission to overcome homelessness through education. We look forward to working with our network to ensure educational access and success as the best way to prevent future homelessness and its negative consequences for children and youth.