No More Missed Opportunities on Youth Homelessness

A homeless youth sleeps in a doorway.

Across America, the persistence of teen and young adult homelessness represents a failure to provide for and protect our youth. Groundbreaking research by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that across any 12-month period, more than 4.1 million young people between the ages of 13 and 25 experience some form of homelessness in America.

We also found that young people experience significant personal loss before and during pathways through homelessness. More than a third of youth interviewed in a special component of our research reported the death of at least one parent or caregiver during their childhood, youth or young adulthood. And we found that youth who struggle with housing instability are very similar to the young people who enter foster care or come to the attention of the child welfare system.

Clearly, as a nation, we are missing opportunities to ensure all young people can reach their full potential and contribute to stronger communities and economies across the country.

New evidence provides new opportunity, and we have seen this in the evolution of America’s child welfare system. Initially, the system was focused on “saving” children. Through research and better data, the system has evolved to include a focus on prevention, and how to better support families as the most effective route to improved outcomes for children. The evolution of federal policy – beginning with Title V of the Social Security Act in 1935 up through to the recent Family First Prevention Services Act in 2018 – forms the cornerstone for a U.S. child welfare system that continues to mature.

Bryan Samuels, executive director of Chapin Hill. Photo: Nancy Wong

For the nation’s runaway and homeless youth, we have a chance at a similar evolution. In addition to uncovering the scope of youth homelessness, Chapin Hall’s latest research confirmed the strong link between the youth and families who experience homelessness and those in the child welfare system.

We have also identified the common experiences that lead to homelessness, and identified how we need to intervene to prevent homelessness.

A few highlights of what we found include:

  • Young people’s experiences of homelessness and housing instability are often characterized by a high degree of fluidity in and out of homelessness and between different sleeping arrangements over time. Ninety-three percent of the youth in our in-depth interviews who experienced sleeping on the streets or in shelters also experienced couch surfing at some point, or at multiple points, across their pathways.
  • The prevalence rates of youth homelessness were statistically equal between rural and non-rural communities.
  • Youth of color have significantly higher homelessness prevalence as compared to their white, non-Hispanic peers.

Given the strong prevention focus of the Family First Act, along with the explicit charge in the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act to serve youth at risk of entering the child welfare system, there is a window of opportunity to use new evidence to align prevention mandates. Policies informed by this evidence can also create a clearer path to aligning prevention, homelessness and child welfare programs to impact the lives of families and youth in crisis.

We know the clear links between family instability, engagement with the child welfare system, and youth homelessness. Using this new knowledge will allow for a transition to more evidence-based policies and brighter futures for America’s youth and their families.

Bryan Samuels is the executive director of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, and is the former commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

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