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Defining and Counting Youth Homelessness

By William Wubbenhorst, Associate Commissioner, Family and Youth Services Bureau

Causes of running away and homelessness among young people are many and varied, as are potential consequences. Several factors make it difficult to determine the scope of the issue of youth homelessness, including the number of homeless youth and young adults in the United States. In addition to there being no consistent methodology for conducting a youth count and no consistent definition of homeless youth across federal agencies, homeless young people may not be connected to formal support services such as child welfare, juvenile justice, and mental health systems; the education system; or youth shelters and drop-in centers. They may not wish to be found or may have a network of friends or relatives who let them couch surf or live with them temporarily.

A strong foundation of data and statistics is necessary to inform developing and implementing effective federal, state, and local policies and strategies to reduce the number of young people lacking safe and stable housing. Attempts to capture this population include the Point in Time (PIT) Count, a project of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Youth Count! Initiative, a joint venture of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, HUD, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education. Research projects such as Chapin Hall’s Voices of Youth Count are developing and testing new methods for achieving more accurate estimates and sharing this information with the field.

It’s challenging to quantify the number of young people without safe and stable housing. Definitions of homelessness, including youth homelessness, vary from agency to agency. These definitions are generally based on laws or regulations. However, the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act provides the definition used by the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) and is the authorizing legislation for FYSB’s RHY programs. It defines youth homelessness as young people who cannot live in a safe environment with a relative and who have no other safe living arrangement.

Youth homelessness is more common than you might think. Homelessness among youth doesn’t always mean young people living on the streets or in shelters. Indeed, with the exception of FYSB-funded Basic Center Program shelters, many homeless shelters don’t accept unaccompanied minors. Homelessness also includes couch surfing or staying with friends or relatives, which is a temporary answer to what may be a long-term issue. The Voices of Youth Count reveals “a scenario of American youth homelessness in which a shifting population of young people uses temporary situations to get by when they cannot stay in a home of their own.”

Help is available for runaway and homeless youth and their families. FYSB provides funding to several types of direct service providers through its Street Outreach Program, Basic Center Program, and Transitional Living Program/Maternity Group Home grants. Current grantees along with their contact information are listed by state on the FYSB website. FYSB funds the National Runaway Safeline, which offers a crisis hotline (1-800-RUNAWAY) and online services 24/7/365. NRS can help runaway and homeless young people in many different ways, such as finding shelter, social services, or legal services; serving as a go-between or setting up a conference call with parents; or providing a free bus ticket home with their Home Free program.

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