States take up measures to confront youth homelessness

From couch surfing to living in the streets, it is easy to overlook young people experiencing homelessness. That’s changing.

Image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay

Youth homelessness can be easy to miss because it doesn’t always manifest itself in the form of a kid sleeping on the street or panhandling at an intersection.

Instead, homeless youth often couch surf among friends or acquaintances, making it hard to know exactly how big the problem is and how best to address it.

Nevertheless, it is estimated that about 4.2 million young people are experiencing homelessness, including 700,000 children who are unaccompanied minors. 

As state and local officials move to develop housing initiatives for chronically homeless adults, it is easy to overlook young people experiencing homelessness. But that’s changing.

“If you're putting all of your money into serving chronically homeless adults and ignoring youth, then you've just created a system that requires long-term suffering before you're a priority,” said Darla Bardine, executive director of the National Network for Youth.

At least 15 states this year are considering or have considered bills that bolster services and resources for young people navigating housing instability, according to Schoolhouse Connection, a nonprofit that aims to overcome youth homelessness.

The bills include establishing formal positions to support students and their families and streamlining data collection in order to get a clearer picture of the problem, among other approaches. 

State lawmakers in Florida just ended their annual 60-day legislative session; homelessness was largely not on the agenda. As recently as the 2017-18 school year, 95,873 children and youth in Florida had gone through some form of homelessness, even temporarily, according to the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida.

"These students were temporarily doubled up with others or staying in hotels and motels, shelters, transitional housing, and unsheltered locations," the center said. 

Elsewhere, a bill making its way through the Illinois General Assembly would require school districts to conduct training on homelessness every two years, in some cases partnering with community-based organizations. And last week, Oklahoma passed a bill that would require all school districts to standardize reporting cases of students experiencing homelessness and to compile an annual report.

Legislation that leverages education systems can be particularly effective, according to Rodd Monts, director of state policy for Schoolhouse Connection. That’s in part because schools have so-called McKinney-Vento liaisons—named for a law passed in 1987—who identify homeless students and connect them and their families with service providers and other resources. 

“They are really the people who are closest to the problem,” Monts said. “The more support and the greater number of resources we can provide those leads to help youth experiencing homelessness and their families, the better we're going to be able to address the issue overall.”

Earning a high school diploma

Ensuring students stay in school is critical to ending youth homelessness and, in turn, chronic homelessness among adults, Monts said, adding that “the lack of a high school diploma is the single greatest determinant of young adult homelessness.”

Helping students and their families find stable housing is critical in increasing graduation rates.

In Maine, lawmakers are considering a bill that would provide funding to school leaders and homeless liaisons to help students and their families avoid evictions and homelessness, lessening the challenges families face navigating confusing and burdensome housing and support systems.

A separate bill in the state would provide housing vouchers for students and their families, though critics note that such an initiative can only help so much given the current housing shortage. 

Life after high school

Several states are looking for ways to continue support beyond the K-12 years.

In California, for instance, legislators are considering a bill that would provide graduating high school seniors experiencing homelessness a guaranteed basic income of $1,000 a month between April and August the year they finish school. It’s an important time, Monts noted, as those students can’t rely on the McKinney-Vento support they received while in high school but often do not yet have financial support to transition to a job or college.

Lawmakers in Minnesota are looking to create a pilot program in two counties that would distribute “unconditional” cash stipends to people between 18 and 24.

Several states are considering initiatives to support college students experiencing homelessness. New York, Nevada and Texas are debating bills that would create liaisons on college campuses to support homeless students and help them with critical resources. And lawmakers in Pennsylvania and Texas are aiming to prioritize homeless students for on-campus housing.

Removing barriers to vital documents

Legislation to help students access vital records—including birth certificates, driver's licenses and other important documents—is “arguably the most important” kind of legislation to help young people navigate homelessness, Monts said, especially young people who do not live with parents or guardians.

At least three states have approved laws this year to make accessing vital documents easier. Last month, North Dakota approved legislation that allows state agencies to help youth get their birth certificates, and the Kentucky General Assembly passed a bill that will allow people over the age of 16 and experiencing homelessness to get ID cards without a signature from a parent or guardian.

For homeless students in college, the law also waives fees associated with accessing college transcripts. 

Arkansas, meanwhile, passed a comprehensive law that waives fees for state IDs, birth certificates, driver’s licenses and driver’s education. The legislation also includes assistance with car insurance, which can often be an overlooked barrier, Monts said. 

Besides helping young people get on their feet, these kinds of laws also offer states a financial incentive, Monts said. 

“The fiscal impact on states is relatively minimal and made up through the access,” he said, adding, “you're able to provide people with the resources they need to be more self-sufficient and less reliant on other resources.”

Molly Bolan is the assistant editor for Route Fifty, where a version of this story was first published. 

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