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October 12, 2021 HUMAN RIGHTS

Addressing the Post-COVID-19 Needs of Young People Experiencing Homelessness

by Gabriella McDonald and Michael Santos

Youth experiencing homelessness face multiple barriers and unique challenges that require more coordinated federal, state, and local responses in order to meet their needs to make youth homelessness rare, brief, non-recurring, and hopefully eventually eradicated.

Over the last 20 years, valuable strides have been made to bring an “end to homelessness.” The most notable efforts were with regard to minimizing veterans’ homelessness in 2016. However, until recently, one population experiencing homelessness was constantly slipping through the cracks: our nation’s youth—that is, people under the age of 25 who are sleeping outdoors or on the street; sleeping in a tent, car, or other uninhabitable place; or couch surfing or doubling up with other households. Homelessness for a young person is much more than just simply the lack of a home. It usually means that there is no one to teach a young person how to apply for a job or do laundry, no one to cosign an apartment lease, and nowhere to go over summer break when college dorms close. The result is a youth who is completely alone on life’s journey—a state and feeling that have only been heightened during these unprecedented times of COVID-19, where everyone is feeling various forms of isolation.

Youth experiencing homelessness face multiple compounding barriers that thwart their ability to seek and receive critical services.

Youth experiencing homelessness face multiple compounding barriers that thwart their ability to seek and receive critical services.


Youth experiencing homelessness are being failed by some systems that were not designed for this population’s particular needs. For example, many homeless service providers focus on adults experiencing homelessness. They only serve youth to the extent that they are part of a family unit, if at all, and most shelters are not designed to serve and support the needs of young people still in development.

Simultaneously, young people experiencing homelessness is often a critical sign that systems of care specifically designed to protect and support them have failed. This can be seen by youth who are subject to aging out of foster care or who are being released from a juvenile facility into homelessness when these systems fail to ensure that they have a safe and supportive family or network to return to.

Consequently, policymakers and legal advocates should not ignore or overlook the myriad reasons youth experience homelessness and the vastly different barriers youth have to overcome to successfully and permanently exit homelessness when creating support and services to provide for these youth.

Youth often cite family conflict as a major reason for running away from home and experiencing homelessness. Youth who have had contact with the foster care, juvenile, and criminal justice systems are at greater risk of homelessness. Black and Latinx youth and youth who identify as LGBTQ+ are also at greater risk of experiencing homelessness. Finally, poverty—alone or combined with any of these other factors—increases the likelihood of homelessness.

Once homeless, youth are more vulnerable to other threats, including but not limited to food insecurity, sexual exploitation and trafficking, physical abuse, untreated mental and physical health problems, disruptions to their education, and criminalization. Without a stable place to call home, their efforts to survive, stay safe, and be resilient become even more challenging. This leads to some engaging in a survival economy in order to meet their basic needs.

Youth experiencing homelessness face multiple compounding barriers that thwart their ability to seek and receive critical services needed to end and prevent their suffering. Many programs have age ranges that include some youth but not others, resulting in a frustrating patchwork of services depending on where in the age range a youth falls. Additionally, providers are often concerned about liability when providing support to youth under the age of the majority and may just avoid providing services to those minors altogether. Further, youth often distrust systems that might be able to provide support because they have been consistently failed by the adults in their lives.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP), started in 2016, has helped communities begin to change their mindset by seeing youth experiencing homelessness as their own population and promoting continuous coordination over patchwork services. Programs like YHDP should continue to be resourced to encourage such collaboration.

Young people experiencing homelessness were already struggling before COVID-19, but the prolonged global health crisis made it even more challenging to obtain critical support.

During the pandemic, many were already at risk of homelessness. This manifested in millions of young people reporting high levels of housing insecurity coupled with food insecurity, both disproportionately felt by young Black people. About 3.8 million had little to no confidence that they would be able to pay the next month’s rent, and 4.9 million young adults had too little to eat at a given time during the pandemic. Young people also reported higher levels of mental health difficulties than any other adult age group, exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic. Experiencing homelessness in itself is traumatic. That trauma was only exacerbated by a worldwide pandemic.

The pandemic’s consequences and aftermath were and continue to be felt more acutely by youth experiencing homelessness today. A young person cannot shelter-in-place effectively if they do not have a place to call home. Youth often hear about services available to them through interactions with their peers and drop-in centers that supply them with food, clothing, and so forth, but without opportunities to gather and with many service provider closures, these youth were suddenly cut off from the resources they once could rely on.

Protracted quarantine, social distancing, and other public health requirements across the country made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for already vulnerable young people to obtain critical services without risking exposure to the virus. Schools and businesses closing their doors to the public and transitioning to a virtual environment and online transactions further exposed a digital divide that keeps many youth without access to employment, education, and housing. Even libraries, which normally help bridge the digital divide, were shut down. Without access to free Wi-Fi, it was extremely difficult for these youth to get the help they needed.

Long-term assistance and coordinated response to youth homelessness are needed beyond temporary, short-term, one-time measures put in place to mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic.

Congress provided only temporary, short-term, one-time assistance to lift up youth experiencing homelessness in an attempt to bring them out of poverty, prevent chronic homelessness, and provide additional support at a particular time when many are still recovering from the devastating impact and disruption of the pandemic on the overall well-being of youth experiencing homelessness.

Various recovery legislation through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March 2020 and the Consolidated Appropriations Act passed in December 2020 provided youth experiencing homelessness with much-needed direct cash assistance, helping mitigate the harsh effects of the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan Act, passed in March 2021, provided another round of direct cash assistance to these youth and an infusion of billions of dollars in funding for their nutrition, education, and housing assistance. Youth experiencing homelessness aged 18 and over, including those who are full-time students and working, can now claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for the taxable year December 31, 2020, to January 1, 2022, which could help ease their transition to adulthood. For one year, the maximum credit that youth experiencing homelessness can claim in 2021 has been increased to $1,502.

Additional cash assistance for pregnant and parenting youth experiencing homelessness will also come in the form of monthly benefits through the recent expansion of the Child Tax Credit (CTC). The tax credit was temporarily increased to $3,000 per child aged 6 to 17 or $3,600 for each child under the age of 6, and this expansion is set to expire next year. The Internal Revenue Service will pay part of this refundable tax credit through monthly installments of $250 or $300 from July through December.

The ability for youth to receive direct cash assistance is essential to the success of youth experiencing homelessness because of their constantly fluctuating and highly mobile circumstances. The ability to pay an electricity bill or contribute to household groceries can be the difference in what helps stabilize youth living with a friend, mentor, or extended or chosen family. Flexibility is key to these young people’s survival and resilience.

Congress and the Biden administration have the unique opportunity to lift more youth experiencing homelessness out of their circumstances, provide long-term stability, and prevent young people from ever experiencing homelessness.

At the core is a better understanding of the severity of the problem. This can be achieved by improving how the government collects data on young people experiencing homelessness. Additionally, the lack of alignment in the definitions of homelessness used by different federal agencies is a corollary to challenges in coordinating efforts and response at the state and local levels to combat homelessness, making youth experiencing homelessness more likely to fall through the cracks. Coordination is essential because housing, education, employment, and health are all interconnected. Continuous, increased long-term investments in support and services, including making permanent the expansions to the EITC and CTC, are critical for youth to succeed. To this end, additional cash assistance must be scaled up because it provides a great degree of flexibility to meet the complex, multifaceted needs of youth experiencing homelessness, including improving their financial stability, job prospects, and overall health and well-being.

Policymakers and advocates should prioritize educational support. Schools play an important role in addressing youth needs that often go beyond the classroom.

Equally important to any recovery legislation is additional robust funding for education programs, including the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. This is because access to schools typically means access to support and services for many youth experiencing homelessness. McKinney-Vento liaisons—and educators generally—will be essential to the post-COVID success of students experiencing homelessness.

Under the McKinney-Vento Act, every school district in the country is required to have a liaison whose job is to ensure that students experiencing homelessness have everything they need to be successful and earn their diploma. These liaisons are tasked with ensuring students experiencing homelessness are identified, enrolled, receiving all educational services for which they are eligible, and given the opportunity to meet the same academic and extracurricular standards as other students. This is extremely difficult to execute properly without adequate funding. Yet, the work is fundamental because youth who do not obtain a high school diploma are at greater risk of experiencing homelessness. Even a GED can create societal barriers and stigma that challenge a youth’s ability to obtain wages and employment that allow them to meet their housing and other needs.

As we emerge from the darkest parts of this pandemic, students experiencing homelessness will still need additional support to survive and thrive as they return to school in person. Students experiencing homelessness should have received all of the equipment/materials necessary to continue their education throughout the pandemic, even if the school was not providing other students with laptops, tablets, or assignment printouts.

These resources must continue even as students return to classrooms. The trauma and learning loss experienced over the last 18 months will require adequate access to counselors and mental health professionals to help keep students experiencing homelessness from entering the school-to-prison pipeline. We know students who feel left behind academically or do not have a stable environment outside of the classroom are more likely to act out at school in response.

The U.S. Department of Education has allocated $800 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan to support students experiencing homelessness, and those funds should be used to ensure schools have counselors and other professionals on hand to support not only academic work and basic needs but mental health needs as well.

Access to food at school should also not be interrupted. The Food and Nutrition Service should continue to allow students to be served meals outside of traditional times and settings and to be picked up to-go by parents and students to continue to help minimize food insecurity concerns throughout the school year, not just during the summer.

Overall, legal advocates should use the larger mandate contained within the McKinney Vento Act—ensuring youth experiencing homelessness have what they need to be successful—to advocate for the temporary changes and accommodations we saw made for this population during the pandemic to be made permanent, with appropriate funding levels that allow liaisons and other administrators to meet the demand.

Ending and preventing youth homelessness can be complex given the multiple barriers and unique challenges youth face. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to youth homelessness, but, at a minimum, solving it must include large-scale and long-term investments in supports and services paired with a coordinated effort across systems of care to better meet the needs of these youth and end the intergenerational cycle of homelessness and poverty. Recovering from the global pandemic crisis presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address youth homelessness. We should not squander it.

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Gabriella McDonald

Pro Bono & New Projects Director, Texas Appleseed

Gabriella McDonald is the pro bono and new projects director at Texas Appleseed, where she connects lawyers and other professionals to Texas Appleseed’s work promoting social and economic justice for all. She spearheaded the creation of Texas Appleseed’s Youth Homelessness project area, working to raise awareness, providing self-help materials for the population and those who serve them, and advocating for policy changes that will hopefully bring an end to youth experiencing homelessness.

Michael Santos

Senior Policy Associate, RESULTS Educational Fund

Michael Santos is a senior policy associate at RESULTS Educational Fund, where he works with passionate grassroots advocates who use their voices to influence political decisions on critical federal housing policies that will bring an end to poverty. He was a former eviction defense attorney in California and has advocated nationally for homeless youth access to education through public education, impact litigation, and policy advocacy.