Service providers have long known that youth homelessness is a pervasive reality. Yet youth homelessness is also notoriously hard to count—due in large part to the narrow definition of what constitutes homelessness, the difficulty of finding youth who are couch surfing or avoiding services due to stigma, and the community practice of counting parenting youth as adults rather than young people.
In 2016, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago conducted a groundbreaking, comprehensive count of homeless youth and young adults nationwide, including those who were living on the streets, in shelter, or couch surfing. Chapin Hall’s Voices of Youth Count is the first of its kind to capture the true scale of the problem. And it’s far bigger than we thought.
Approximately 4.2 million young people experienced homelessness in America within one year. More than 3.5 million were young adults ages 18-25, with one in every ten young adult experiencing some form of homelessness in a year. Over 700,000 13-17-year-olds in America were homeless and on their own. Approximately one out of three homeless young women were pregnant or parenting—a number highest in rural communities. And youth homelessness is just as prevalent in rural communities as it is in urban ones.
It is time for us to make investments in homeless youth that are truly proportionate to the need. It’s time we recognize that youth homelessness is different than adult homelessness—and our strategies and interventions need to be tailored to their unique developmental needs.
It’s time our nation treats youth homelessness like the crisis it truly is.
At the federal level, this means Congress must reauthorize the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which provides critical community-based care, housing, and counseling to homeless youth. Additionally, Congress should pass the Homeless Children and Youth Act, which would update HUD’s definition of homelessness and eliminate the complex documentation necessary to be deemed homeless.
At the local level, this means acknowledging that King County is no exception to this trend.
On a single night in King County, 515 homeless and unstably housed youth ages 13-25 experienced homelessness. Almost a third of the youth identified as Black or African American and 18 percent as multiracial, though they account for only seven and five percent of the County’s population, respectively. Thirty-nine percent of the females reported being a parent or pregnant. And almost half of the unstably housed 16-24-year-olds in King County were neither in school nor working. Indeed, the lack of a high school diploma or GED was the most strongly correlated risk factor for homelessness in the national count.
To end youth homelessness, we must begin with shelter, food, and support, followed by safe housing and reconnecting to school and jobs. These are the key long-term components of transformation.
We must also tailor our services to address the stark disparities amongst those we serve. Homeless youth and young adults are disproportionately youth of color, immigrants, LGBTQ, pregnant or parenting, or navigating the barriers of mental health, substance abuse, or physical disability.
We must increase our stock of safe and affordable housing. We must continue to help youth build employment skills and self-efficacy. And we must redress the systemic failures underlying youth homelessness: undoing institutionalized racism, funding our child welfare system, reforming our juvenile justice system, investing in mental health and drug treatment, expanding pathways to education and living wage employment, and addressing the specific needs of homeless young families.
With the new statewide Office of Homeless Youth, and the recent federal Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program grant awarded to King County, Washington is well-positioned to lead the nation in ending youth homelessness.
We can, and must, help youth back onto the pathway of their potential—stopping homelessness at its source, before it becomes chronic and long-term.
Homelessness starts young and can persist throughout a lifetime. It’s time we change that.