What We Know About Youth and Young Adult Homelessness

Posted March 2, 2021, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Young person sits on the ground and appears distressed

The Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion con­tin­ues to invest in numer­ous efforts to reduce and ulti­mate­ly end home­less­ness among young peo­ple. This work — part of the Foundation’s broad­er strat­e­gy to curb hous­ing insta­bil­i­ty for young peo­ple and fam­i­lies — includes sup­port­ing nation­al and local ini­tia­tives and com­mu­ni­ty advocacy.

One exam­ple: The Youth Home­less­ness Pre­ven­tion Ini­tia­tive, which aims to lever­age and devel­op evi­dence-based solu­tions — and apply mean­ing­ful input from young peo­ple — to address youth and young adult home­less­ness across the coun­try. Casey recent­ly joined with oth­er fun­ders, includ­ing project lead Chapin Hall at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, to launch the project.

But what do we know about youth and young adult home­less­ness today? The Casey Foun­da­tion explores stud­ies and pol­i­cy papers from Voic­es of Youth Count, an ini­tia­tive of Chapin Hall, to answer some key questions.

How many young peo­ple are homeless?

Approx­i­mate­ly 4.2 mil­lion youth and young adults expe­ri­ence some form of home­less­ness each year.

This fig­ure stems from a Voic­es of Youth Count sur­vey — con­duct­ed in 2016 and 2017 — that indi­cates one in 10 young adults (ages 1825) and one in 30 teens (ages 1317) had expe­ri­enced home­less­ness in the last 12 months. The sur­vey defined home­less­ness broad­ly, count­ing any­one who had couch surfed, stayed in a shel­ter, slept on the streets, run away or been kicked out of their home.

The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic — which sparked both eco­nom­ic tur­moil and a hous­ing cri­sis — has like­ly pushed these num­bers even higher.

Which young peo­ple are more like­ly to be homeless?

Some young peo­ple face a greater risk of expe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness than oth­ers, accord­ing to the Voic­es of Youth Count Nation­al Esti­mates study. Youth and young adults who are most like­ly to be home­less include:

  • unmar­ried par­ents (200% more like­ly to report being home­less com­pared to oth­er young adult populations;
  • mem­bers of the les­bian, gay, bisex­u­al, trans­gen­der and ques­tion­ing (LGBTQ) com­mu­ni­ty (120% more like­ly to report expe­ri­enc­ing homelessness);
  • Black young adults (83% more like­ly to report fac­ing home­less­ness); and
  • Lati­no young adults (33% more like­ly to report fac­ing homelessness).

A young person’s aca­d­e­m­ic record, income and well-being can also impact their risk of becom­ing home­less, accord­ing to the study. It found that:

  • Indi­vid­u­als lack­ing a high school diplo­ma or GED were near­ly 346% more like­ly to face home­less­ness than young adults who had com­plet­ed high school.
  • Indi­vid­u­als report­ing an annu­al house­hold income below $24,000 were 162% more like­ly to be home­less than their wealth­i­er peers.
  • Near­ly 70% of youth and young adults who expe­ri­enced home­less­ness report­ed fac­ing men­tal health dif­fi­cul­ties and 29% strug­gling with sub­stance use.

How do youth and young adults become homeless?

No sin­gle fac­tor caus­es young peo­ple to become homeless.

At the same time: Most young peo­ple cite fam­i­ly insta­bil­i­ty and dis­rup­tions in the home as a pre­cur­sor to becom­ing home­less, accord­ing to a 2019 sum­ma­ry of inter­views with 215 youth and young adults who had expe­ri­enced homelessness.

Research also links home­less­ness to child wel­fare sys­tem involve­ment. One-third of young peo­ple who had expe­ri­enced home­less­ness had also expe­ri­enced fos­ter care, accord­ing to Nation­al Esti­mates. Anoth­er study found that many young adults aged out of fos­ter care with­out an ade­quate tran­si­tion plan in place while oth­er youth were adopt­ed or reuni­fied with fam­i­lies but became home­less after fac­ing abuse, neglect or oth­er adverse circumstances.

Oth­er fac­tors dri­ving youth home­less­ness include:

  • a caregiver’s death;
  • dis­crim­i­na­tion faced by mixed-race or LGBTQ youth; and
  • expe­ri­ence with juve­nile deten­tion, jail or prison.

How does home­less­ness impact youth and young adults?

Home­less­ness can have a sig­nif­i­cant and last­ing impact on young people.

Dur­ing ado­les­cence — a crit­i­cal peri­od that rough­ly spans ages 14 to 25 — young peo­ple typ­i­cal­ly devel­op their iden­ti­ty, build rela­tion­ships and learn impor­tant life skills, such as smart deci­sion mak­ing and risk taking.

Hous­ing insta­bil­i­ty — and the stress that accom­pa­nies it — can dis­rupt and ulti­mate­ly derail a young person’s path to inde­pen­dence. It’s also a chal­lenge that grows with time: The longer that a young per­son expe­ri­ences home­less­ness, the hard­er it is to escape it, a 2017 Nation­al Esti­mates study found.

How can we end youth homelessness

Voic­es of Youth Count rec­om­mends tak­ing the fol­low­ing steps to help pre­vent and reduce home­less­ness among young people:

  • Gath­er bet­ter data to guide respons­es. The field needs reg­u­lar, nation­al esti­mates of youth home­less­ness — ones that include youth stay­ing with friends or in oth­er tem­po­rary arrange­ments. This data can help guide fund­ing for hous­ing inter­ven­tions, ser­vices, out­reach and pre­ven­tion efforts.
  • Iden­ti­fy tar­get­ed inter­ven­tions. Researchers must con­tin­ue explor­ing which risk fac­tors mat­ter most for cer­tain pop­u­la­tions — includ­ing young peo­ple of col­or and LGBTQ youth. Sys­tems and pro­grams can then use this infor­ma­tion to bet­ter tai­lor ser­vices and sup­port for these populations.
  • Expand pre­ven­tion ser­vices. Most youth and young adults who faced home­less­ness were doing so for the first time, accord­ing to Nation­al Esti­mates. This sug­gests a need for pre­ven­tion and ear­ly inter­ven­tion ser­vices that cut across mul­ti­ple sys­tems —includ­ing the child wel­fare and crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tems — at var­i­ous lev­els of government.

As we address the imme­di­ate eco­nom­ic and hous­ing cri­sis caused by the pan­dem­ic, we must also face down the long­stand­ing fac­tors that con­tribute to per­va­sive hous­ing insta­bil­i­ty and home­less­ness among young peo­ple,” says Charles Rutheis­er, who man­ages the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s strate­gies for address­ing hous­ing insta­bil­i­ty. Only then can we begin to build a path for­ward to reduc­ing and, ulti­mate­ly, end­ing youth and young adult homelessness.

Learn more about Casey’s work improv­ing hous­ing secu­ri­ty and stability

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