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, 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.

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

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