The path forward for homeless youth

April 21, 2014
 
On this day in the United States, approximately 1.6 million young people are struggling to eke out an existence while homeless and alone. These unaccompanied homeless youth lack stable housing and the support of a parent or legal guardian for a variety of reasons.  Some have been rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy, or other conflict. Others have had to leave home because a parent has died, been incarcerated, been deported, or become homeless himself, and still others have aged out or otherwise left systems of care – including the juvenile justice and child welfare systems – with nowhere to go.  Foster care oftentimes is not a viable option for these young people, particularly if they are in their teen years and not in a position to integrate into a new family, or if their own past traumatic experiences in child welfare have themselves contributed to their current homelessness.  To survive, unaccompanied homeless youth depend on the couches of friends and strangers, and at times resort to theft, prostitution, and other risky or illegal behaviors.
 
What should society do for these young people? Morally, policymakers and everyday citizens have an obligation to care for this next generation when the adults in their lives – parents, the child welfare system, or schools – have failed them, whether intentionally or not.  It also makes sense to invest in unaccompanied homeless youth from a purely economic perspective.  Without support, individuals who experience homelessness in adolescence and during their transitional years are likely to become chronically homeless adults, who impose costs on the public associated with higher numbers of emergency room visits and hospitalizations, petty crime and the resulting involvement with the criminal justice system, and reliance on public benefits. Those homeless young people who do receive support in the form of housing assistance, education, and mentorship, however, stand ready and able to become productive members of their communities.
 
Existing law recognizes this obligation to support unaccompanied homeless youth in limited but important ways.  The federal McKinney-Vento Act, for example, requires school systems to affirmatively identify and provide educational and related services to these youth so that they have the same opportunity for academic success as their peers.  In addition, the federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) funds the creation of basic centers, shelters, and transitional housing for these youth, albeit on a limited basis.  And, in Maryland, the General Assembly passed legislation during its 2014 session that allows unaccompanied homeless youth to attend state colleges, universities, and vocational programs tuition free so that they can move forward on a path toward sustainable employment and stability.
 
But we have a long way to go.  RHYA funding is extremely limited, such that there are only two youth shelters funded by that program in Baltimore, and none in most of the state.  Likewise, although McKinney-Vento has been on the books for decades, many school districts have been unable to implement its provisions, and the PJC routinely hears stories of homeless young people who are denied education sometimes for weeks at a time because of illegal school system barriers to their access to school.  I believe that the path forward requires taking a justice-driven, rather than a charity-driven, approach to youth homelessness.  In the richest country in the world, no young person should have to be homeless and alone for even one night.  
 
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