Who Are Homeless Youth?

There is no current data to determine the overall numbers of unaccompanied homeless youth in the United States, but it is estimated that there are between 1.3 to 1.7 million youth who experience one night of homelessness a year with 550,000 of the youth being homeless for a week or longer. Of that number, a staggering 300,000+ are living in California. Based on the latest report to Congress, nearly 30% of all homeless youth in the United States are living in California without a safe place to call home1. In addition, two-thirds of our states counties lack even basic services for homeless youth such as shelters, much less proven long term programs that would address homelessness for youth2.

The definition of homeless youth can vary. CCY supports an inclusive approach to this issue, and considers “homeless youth” or “unaccompanied homeless youth” (often used interchangeably) as youth who are 12–25 years of age, living on their own, without a parent or guardian, and lacking a stable or permanent address.

Runaway and homeless youth flee conflict, abuse, neglect, or, increasingly, poverty in their homes. They are living on the streets, in cars or vacant buildings. Sometimes they are “couch surfing” or living in other unstable circumstances3. They have become disconnected from educational systems and the workforce and do not have the skills and financial resources to live on their own. Research reveals several key observations about homeless youth. First, abuse, neglect, and family conflict are often identified as precursors to youth homelessness. A high percentage of all homeless youth have experienced physical abuse and sexual abuse. Youth often identify severe family conflict as the primary reason for their homelessness. Some youth may be rejected and abandoned by their parents due to pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity. While some youth chose to run away from their homes, many others are forced to leave as they are rejected and abandoned by their parents. These youth are often referred to as “throwaway youth” as they have been thrown out and left to fend for themselves on the streets.

The factors impacting youth homelessness are complex and differ from those impacting other homeless populations. Youth homelessness is unique because young people :

  • Are physically, emotionally, psychologically, and socially still developing — they are adults-in-progress with unique strengths and assets.
  • Enter into homelessness with little or no work experience.
  • Are often forced into leaving their education prior to completion (i.e., junior high and high school) as a result of their homelessness.
  • Experience high levels of criminal victimization, including sexual exploitation and labor trafficking.
  • Often enter into homelessness without life skills, such as cooking, money management, housekeeping, and job searching.

To move forward and scale up a youth-appropriate service delivery system, we must strategically invest resources so young people have access to the support they need to grow and develop as adolescents and transition to adulthood. There is a network of programs for these youth, but they are currently insufficient for the level of need. With a fully resourced service delivery system, we would have the ability to provide the readily accessible care, safety, and services necessary for youth in crisis, and truly prevent and end youth homelessness in America.

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1 US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Community Housing and Development. (2015). The 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress by Henry, Meghan et al.
2 Hyatt, Shahera, et al. (2014). Programs Serving California’s Homeless Youth: Results of a Point-In-Time Survey. (2011)
3 What Works To End Youth Homelessness 2015 – J.D. Bardine, National Network for Youth www.nn4youth.org/wp-content/uploads/2015-What-Works-to-End-Youth-Homlessness.pdf