How Public Policy Supports Homeless Youth in America

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Annually, an estimated 4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness. The pathway to homelessness is complex and often starts with family instability. A large number of homeless youth experience abuse, domestic violence, and discrimination for their sexual orientation, increasing their risk of homelessness. Much has been achieved through public policy over the past few decades to support vulnerable youth and young adults facing homelessness. However, challenges in youth homelessness still loom large today.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the Ohio University online Master of Public Administration program.

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Chapter 1: A Somber Picture of Homeless Youth in America

Homeless youth and young adults experiencing homelessness across the U.S. face difficult decisions when considering where to spend the night; some are forced to trade sex for housing, while others are trafficked.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) developed lists categorizing different types of homeliness. The categories are trading sex for housing, staying with friends but cannot stay longer than 14 days, being trafficked, and having no safe, alternative housing after leaving home because of physical, emotional, or financial abuse or threats of abuse.

Statistics of Homeless Youth and Young Adults in the U.S.

A 2016-17 national survey by Voices of youth Count found that 1 in 10 young adults 18-25 and 1 in 30 teenagers 13-17 experienced homelessness over a 12-month period. The majority of homeless youth 13-25 either experienced homelessness lasting more than a month and/or felt unsafe. 72% of those that slept in shelters or the streets also couch surfed. The survey also revealed that some 50% of youth experienced homelessness for the first time in the past year, and over one-third of homeless youth had experienced the death of a parent or caregiver.

According to the survey, the rates of homelessness among young adults and teens living in urban and rural counties were similar. Additionally, 29% of young adults experiencing homelessness were enrolled in college or another educational program.

Chapter 2: Risk Factors and Pathways to Youth Homelessness

Homeless youth and young adults in the U.S. have much in common: early instability in the home may have been caused by poor parental mental health, addiction, or domestic violence. For vulnerable youth and children, the road to homelessness is often paved with tragedy and trauma.

Measuring Risk Factors

Among young adults ages 18-25 reporting explicit homelessness in the last 12 months, homelessness risk was more than 100% higher for those without a high school diploma or GED, unmarried parenting youth, those reporting an annual household income of less than $24,000, and LGBT youth. The risk was also 83% higher for African-American youth, and 33% higher for Hispanic, non-white youth.

The Road to Homelessness

Young people link the beginning of their homelessness to early family instability and disruptions of home, including entrance into foster care and family homelessness.

A Voices of Youth Count survey of 215 young people concluded that unstable or unsafe family conditions often led to parental rejection, getting kicked out, and running away. Causes of family instability included parental struggles with or physical health, addiction, infidelity, and domestic violence.

Young people point to personal factors like mental health issues or substance abuse for shaping their homelessness path, as well as determinantal individual preferences like being self-reliant, self-isolation, or excessive pride. They also cite peer relationships reason they became homeless, even though they describe their peers as rescuers and protectors. In the case of LGBTQA and multi-racial youth, they faced family-based stigma from family members. Young people also note structural factors relating to external environments like service systems and communities as being factors. Additionally, Youth pathways through homelessness involve both geographic mobility and fluidity in sleeping arrangements, an issue that for some involved crossing state lines or national borders.

The survey also highlighted significant personal losses leading to homelessness, such as the loss of parents and caregivers. The most common causes of parental death in these cases included murder, drug overdose, and suicide.

Chapter 3: Public Policy Laws and Nonprofit Organizations

Government laws and programs and nonprofits such as Covenant House are making a positive impact on the lives of homeless youth and young adults.

Several laws and government programs currently serve the homeless. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act is a federal law authorizing communities to provide runaways and homeless youth with temporary shelter and counseling services. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 consists of 15 programs providing services to homeless individuals. The John H. Chaffee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood program provides funds to states, territories, and Indian tribal entities to support current and former foster youth. Additionally, the United States Interagency Council of Homelessness partners with public and private sectors to improve federal spending outcomes to homelessness. StandUp For Kids provides homeless youth with counseling, mentoring, and life-skills training while providing housing and services to 80,000 children annually. Finally, Lighthouse Youth Family Services provides “services for families in crisis, foster care and adoption, mothers and babies, homeless youth and young adults, delinquent youth, and youth learning to become self-sufficient.”


The stories of homeless youth and young adults are tragic and heartbreaking. But with the help of informed public policy, strategic federal funding, and the efforts of nonprofit organizations, those stories can have happy endings.