Four Things Communities Can Do to Address Youth Homelessness

written by Sharon McDonald
November 20, 2013

How will we end youth homelessness? In communities across the country, homeless assistance providers are changing how they deliver services to people experiencing homelessness. Over the years, investments in various interventions have resulted in progress in ending homelessness among veterans, families and people experiencing chronic homelessness.

But what about homeless youth? What will it take to end homelessness for young people?

Most communities lack good data on the number of youth who experience homelessness on any given day – or over the course of a year. There have been some efforts to improve this, but more work needs to be done to capture the data that will allow us to better understand the extent of youth homelessness and the services that need to be established to support them.

Even without that data, however, it is clear that there are investments that communities need to make to end youth homelessness. Here are four strategies communities should be exploring and implementing today. (Disclaimer: This is not intended to be a comprehensive list.)

  1. Provide family intervention services. Most youth who have a runaway or homeless episode will return home to family. This may not be to their family of origin. It could be with extended family or friends, a caring aunt or older sibling. Family intervention services can provide support to youth and their families to foster a successful transition home whenever that is a positive outcome. These services should be easily accessible to youth across homeless service programs. It is a critical service that is often unavailable to young people.
  2. Meet the housing needs of youth in, or exiting, foster care. A large number of youth who become homeless each year were in foster care at age 18. States are now able to extend foster care to age 21 under the Fostering Connections for Success Act. As they extend foster care, states are also designing housing placements and service supports that are appropriate for older youth. Communities should take advantage of opportunities that can provide housing and services for youth in foster care.
  3. Develop an Adequate Crisis Response System. When young people are in crisis and cannot go home, they need a safe place to stay. It is much harder to help a young person escape homelessness through reconnecting them with family or to long-term housing and service programs if they are without adequate shelter. It is also dangerous for young people to be on the streets where they are vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Communities must work to develop crisis housing options so that no young person is without shelter.
  4. Expand Housing and Services Opportunities for Youth. Young people who cannot safely or appropriately return home need support to establish independent households. Most youth will be able to do this but require support and time to do so. There are a number of program models that provide this transitional support, but the intensity and duration of support young people will need transition to greater independence will vary, and so communities must also develop mechanisms to match youth to the services best suited to their needs.

How these services are delivered is also very important.  All programs serving youth need to be culturally competent, informed by a youth development perspective, sensitive to the trauma that young people may have experienced and be welcoming and affirming to LGBTQ youth.  Programs must also recognize that young people need lasting connections to caring and supportive adults who can be ongoing resources for them as they achieve greater independence and autonomy. 

There is no shortage of work to do to end youth homelessness. We need to start doing it.