Youth and Young Adult Homelessness
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, young adults and teens experience some form of homelessness each year, according to a Voices of Youth Count survey conducted in 2016 and 2017. 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 — likely pushed these numbers even higher. In fact: In 2021, the Journal of Adolescent Health published a paper that identified youth facing homelessness as particularly vulnerable during the pandemic.
What is the definition of youth homelessness?
The term “homeless children and youth” refers to individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. This term encompasses children, youth and teens who are awaiting foster care placement. It also includes youth who are migratory and those who reside in unconventional settings, such as cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, hotels, motels, camp grounds, emergency and transitional shelters, bus stations and train stations.
Which young people are more likely to be homeless?
Some young people face a greater risk of experiencing homelessness than others, according to Chapin Hall’s Missed Opportunities report. Those at higher risk include:
- unmarried parenting youth, who are 200% more likely to experience homelessness when compared to their non-parenting peers;
- members of the LGBTQ community, who are 120% more likely to experience homelessness compared to their heterosexual and cisgender peers; and
- youth of color, with Black (83%) and Latino (33%) youth running higher risks of 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 when compared to their high school graduate counterparts
- Individuals reporting an annual household income below $24,000 were 162% more likely to be homeless than their wealthier peers.
Why do youth 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. Oné-third of young people who had experienced homelessness had also experienced foster care, according to the Missed Opportunities report. 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;
- family experience with domestic violence or child abuse;
- experience with juvenile detention, jail or prison; and
- poverty or a lack of affordable housing options.
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, according to Chapin Hall’s Missed Opportunities report.
Young people who experience homelessness are also less likely to attend a four-year college compared to their classmates with stable housing, the report found.
Why are homeless youth vulnerable?
Youth homelessness has been linked to a number of risk factors. For example:
- Unaccompanied homeless youth are more likely to experience physical abuse, sexual assault or abuse and physical illness, including testing positive for HIV or AIDS, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
- School-age children and youth who are homeless are three times more likely to attempt suicide than students who live at home with a parent or guardian (20% versus 6%), per the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.
- Among the youth and young adults experiencing homelessness, nearly 70% reported facing mental health difficulties and 29% were struggling with substance use, per the Missed Opportunities report.
How can we end youth homelessness?
Read the Casey Foundation’s in-depth report on preventing and ending youth homelessness in the United States.
Voices of Youth Count also identifies several ways to help prevent and reduce homelessness among young people. These include:
- Gathering 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.
- Identifying 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.
- Expanding prevention services. Most youth and young adults who faced homelessness were doing so for the first time, according to the Missed Opportunities report. 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 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.