Who Are Our Homeless Youth & How Are They Defined?

How many youth are homeless in America every year?

This is a very common question. The short answer is, we don’t know. We do know that there are not enough beds and resources to meet the need, but we don’t know the exact number of youth who experience homelessness every year. There are several reasons why we don’t know how many youth are homeless year year:

1.  Many young people do not want other people to know they are homeless because they are ashamed of their situations and/or because they do not want to enter the child welfare system. Because many youth hide their homelessness, it is very difficult to get an accurate count of youth who are experiencing homelessness.
2.  There are different federal definitions of “homeless youth” that leads to confusion and limits the young people that are counted as “homeless.” For example, the term “homeless children and youths” for the U.S. Department of Education means those children and youth who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence; and includes those who are sharing housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason. 42 U.S.C. § 11434a(2)(A)&(B)(i). Conversely, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) largely excludes young people who are “couch-surfing” or “doubled-up“. Further, HUD’s annual Point-In-Time (PIT) Count only counts homeless youth living in unsheltered locations or those in shelters. Youth who are temporarily staying with others (including strangers and those they have exchanged sex for a place to say) are not counted. This leads to data that is confusing, not comparable, and difficult to explain to policymakers when explaining why the more resources are needed.
3.  The last large national study to capture the number of homeless youth (minors) in America was conducted in 1999 and only included youth that ran away from home or were thrown out of their home. U.S. Congress has not yet funded a study that was first required to be conducted in 2008. The Prevalence, Needs and Characteristics of Homeless Youth in America study was authorized to be conducted in the 2008 reauthorization of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) (42 U.S.C. 5601 note), but no money has yet to be appropriated to conduct this study.

Why are youth homeless in America?

Youth become homeless for many different reasons. The vast majority of youth do not become homeless by choice. Many different factors contribute to youth homelessness, but studies suggest that some of the primary reasons are family dysfunction, sexual abuse, “aging out” of the foster care system, exiting the juvenile justice system, and economic hardship.

Confusing Terminology.

What do you mean when you say ‘homeless youth’ or ‘runaway youth’ or ‘throwaway youth’?

The language used can be confusing and some people use certain descriptive words that don’t know what they actually mean. All of these words are defined here and should help you understand what exactly we are talking about when we are using these terms.

Couch-Surfing
includes those who are sharing housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason. 42 U.S.C. § 11434a(2)(A)&(B)(i). Couch-surfing is a common term-of-art among the homeless youth community and means that a young person finds temporary shelter with friends, acquaintances, or, less often, family members, but lack a permanent or stable home. Couch-surfing is a common “doubled-up” experience for homeless youth.

Disconnected Youth
sometimes referred to as “opportunity youth,” are defined as people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school nor working.

Doubled-up
is a homeless experience is when a youth (or any person or family) has no legal right to stay where they are staying, and if the property owner/tenant demands that the youth leave, that youth would have no legal recourse to stay. “Doubled-up youth” includes, but is not limited to, those youth couch-surfing or sleeping in sheds, garages, attics, or basements, etc.

Emancipation
commonly referred to as “aging-out”is when young people have left the foster care system (between 18 to 21 depending on the state) and are not longer under the care of the legal or formal care of the foster care system.

Homeless Youth
The definition of homeless youth varies; however, for the purposes of NN4Y we often use this hybrid definition: a “homeless youth” is an individual who is 12-24 years of age, who is living on their own, without a parent or guardian, and is without a safe, stable living arrangement.

Runaway Youth
A minor-aged youth who leaves home without permission and stays away overnight.

Street Youth
an individual who is a runaway youth, or indefinitely or intermittently a homeless youth; and spends a significant amount of time on the street or in other areas that increase the risk to such youth for sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, prostitution, or drug abuse.

Throwaway Youth
is one that meets either of the following criteria:

• A child is asked or told to leave home by a parent or other household adult, no adequate alternative care is arranged for the child by a household adult, and the child is out of the household overnight.

• A child who is away from home is prevented from returning home by a parent or other household adult, no adequate alternative care is arranged for the child by a household adult, and the child is out of the household overnight.

Transition-aged Youth or TAY
are older youth or young adults, 18- to 24-year-olds

Unsheltered Locations
places not meant for human habitation, such as the streets, abandoned buildings, vehicles, or parks.


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