The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 12, 2016

Five important facts about homeless youth

January 12, 2016

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The federal government has set a goal of ending youth homelessness by 2020 with Opening Doors, a strategic plan released in 2010. But as the plan acknowledges, figuring out how many youth are homeless is no easy task.

This month, communities across the country will undertake the annual Point-in-Time (PIT) count of homeless adults, families, and youth in an effort to measure the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on a single night in January. Unfortunately, the PIT count generally undercounts youth experiencing homelessness, so some communities choose to conduct a targeted count of this critically vulnerable population.

As the date of the annual count approaches, it’s helpful to take stock of what we’ve learned about these youth.

  1. Many youth who leave home are not ready to be self-sufficient. Youth are likely to leave home because of a bad situation rather than feeling ready. A hallmark of readiness is the ability to meet basic needs, such as food, shelter, medical care, and work, and many homeless youth have trouble meeting these needs. In one study, about half of homeless youth had difficulty getting enough food and a majority had spent at least one day in the past month without anything to eat. 

    This is not surprising because we know that developmentally, many young people are not ready to be out on their own. Neuroscience research finds that the brain continues to experience major development during adolescence and early adulthood. In fact, because we know that hitting an 18th birthday does not necessarily indicate readiness for adulthood, most states have extended foster care past the age of 18 to respond to the needs of a population that are now more accurately described as “emerging adults.”

  2. Most homeless youth return home. We know that most homeless youth return home. And this can happen quickly. In one study of 1,682,900 underage runaway youth and youth forced to leave home, 99.6 percent returned home and most were gone for less than a week. In a different study of newly homeless adolescents in Los Angeles, California and Melbourne, Australia, most newly homeless adolescents returned home for significant amounts of time within two years of becoming homeless. This doesn’t mean that all youth remain home permanently. But they do maintain connections, even while away from home. In another study, 41 percent of homeless youth who owned a cell phone reported using it to stay connected to their families.

  3. Many homeless youth attend school. Homeless youth face enormous challenges when it comes to attending school, but many still attend. Based on our tabulations using the Runaway and Homeless Youth Management Information System, we find that 65 percent of homeless youth ages 12 to 18 were attending school regularly and 20 percent were attending school irregularly.

    It’s possible that schools don’t know just how many of their students are homeless. One innovative approach is the Homeless Youth Estimation Project, a direct-to-student survey designed to provide an estimate of the number of youth within a school district living somewhere outside of home temporarily. Results from 12 high schools in New England indicate high rates of youth disconnection from permanent and stable homes.

  4. Many youth remain connected to the internet and social media, despite being homeless. One study found that 80 percent of homeless youth use the internet at least twice a week, with many seeing the web as a way to create and maintain social networks and locate services. Homeless youth can use the internet and connections on social media to maintain relationships and stay in touch with family and friends.
  5. When it comes to sex work, homeless youth are being coerced and manipulated, and participate out of desperation. Homeless youth are particularly vulnerable to being coerced into the commercial underground sex economy. In a 2008 study in New York City, a great majority of sexually exploited children expressed a desire to change their circumstances, but felt that they were doing what they had to do to survive.
As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Scholars are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.

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Homeless teen Kenesha Hughes writes in her journal at the Hope Street Shelter for homeless teens on Tuesday Dec. 22, 2009 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Dawn Villella)