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October 12, 2021 HUMAN RIGHTS

Nothing About Youth, Without Youth: The Resurgence of Youth Power in Proclaiming Basic Human Rights to End Homelessness in the United States

by Rich Hooks Wayman

“Nothing about us, without us!” It was in the late 1990s when I heard this rallying cry from young adults experiencing homelessness during a symposium organized by the National Network for Youth (NN4Y). Frustrated and rightfully angered by the violence, sexual exploitation, and daily want and chaos they experienced in street environments, youth leaders were incredulous about the ways they were excluded by policymakers, advocates, and service providers.

Today, youth have seen through attempts to use their time, voice, and ideas by advocates and policymakers without providing them with equal status in making decisions. The result is that, in 2021, youth are beginning to be respected as co-creators in the codification of policy and human rights to end homelessness and are using this power to center policy reforms on racial justice and equity. As an ally, I remember, I should do nothing about youth, without youth.

How does one engage and empower youth to take the lead in rights and policy enforcement and assume leadership positions? Two national groups are showing us the way with remarkable results.

In 2021, youth are beginning to be respected as co-creators in the codification of policy and human rights to end homelessness.

In 2021, youth are beginning to be respected as co-creators in the codification of policy and human rights to end homelessness.


Why Can’t Youth Sit on Your Board of Directors or Set Policy Agendas?

NN4Y is a national nonprofit organization looking to end homelessness and bring together local and state organizations that serve youth experiencing homelessness. Since its conception, NN4Y thought it was necessary to include youth voices in crafting federal policy responses. Over the last 45 years, NN4Y has gone from inviting youth to sit on conference panels to allowing young adults to be on their National Board of Directors.

Yorri Berry-Harris, NN4Y’s director of Youth Partnerships, has lived experience in housing displacement and short-term homelessness and sees youth leadership as critical. In 2021, you find people who do not believe there is unaccompanied homeless youth in America. “We [youth experiencing homelessness] are invisible—the ‘never will haves’—living in extreme poverty and more often youth of color,” Berry-Harris says. “Many of us are passionate about under-resourced communities and ask how we can contribute to help others thrive.”

NN4Y not only recruits youth to their board; they hire youth as expert consultants on its National Youth Advisory Council. However, the decision to pay youth a fair and living wage was initiated by youth leaders. “Professional institutions can be elitist,” Berry-Harris states. “We value education and under-value experience. We must be mutual and we each give something.”

Another national organization that exemplifies youth leadership and power is A Way Home America (AWHA). AWHA is a national nonprofit organization that has fully embraced the necessity of youth leadership and control. AWHA was founded by True Colors United ( in its effort to address the disparities of homelessness for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ+) youth. AWHA’s national leadership body has a majority of members who are young adults under the age of 25, a stark departure from most boards that provide only token representation by young people. This was an intentional and fundamental shift in how movements incorporate youth. Amanda Ayala, co-director, states, “We wished to define what it means to have a seat at the table.”

Shaping Policy and Discovering Purpose and Self-Worth

The benefit of allowing youth to lead policy discussions and advocacy has three important outcomes: (1) it positively impacts federal legislation and the advancement of human rights; (2) it transforms individual identities of self-worth during a critical developmental stage; and (3) youth excellence is displayed, setting an example and blueprint for other youth to be empowered to lead.

Members of NN4Y’s National Youth Advisory Council have influenced the trajectory of federal policy. Youth shared their stories with Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who eventually agreed to co-sponsor the Homeless Children and Youth Act (S. 1469). “I was a shy person in front of a person of power,” Berry-Harris recalls. “The senator was actually in the room with us! I wanted to walk off the ledge with nerves. But we shared our stories, and the stories had power.”

The involvement of youth participants by AWHA was noticed by the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Department under the Obama administration. The youth leaders from True Colors United and AWHA were folded into planning efforts to design the publication of the federal Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project and were invited to participate in determining which states and communities would receive $4 million in new federal funding to create innovative services to end youth homelessness.

Additionally, moving from a point of invisibility and homelessness to using your voice and having influence over others is hard to measure. However, Berry-Harris states, “In valuing them and giving youth a chance to finally be seen by society, it changes a person’s dignity and self-worth! They are contributing to something bigger than themselves which gives them a purpose to their lives.”

However, adult providers and advocates must also recognize that being on a national body does not solve all their day-to-day struggles. At NN4Y, Berry-Harris manages the Advisory Council work and strategic priorities while also responding to calls and text messages during all hours of the day regarding hunger, fear of deportation, and suicide threats. “Partnering with youth means being present,” she explains. “We prioritize well-being as part of our organizational culture.”

Finally, by engaging in youth-led work, organizations set the blueprint for how others can and should engage in listening to those most impacted by program and policy decisions.

Youth Voices Clarified the Intersectionality between Homelessness and Racism

It’s remarkable that after decades of federal advocacy to recognize the existence of rights of unaccompanied youth, it was youth and young adults who asserted the importance of racial justice and equity as central to the human rights movement to end youth homelessness. Marcella Middleton of AWHA shared, “When national conferences or local meetings are held, they talk about the cute stuff that makes people feel good. But whenever there are youth together, there are real conversations. They say we are going to end homelessness, but we are ignoring issues of equity.”

Similar to the role charity plays in anti-poverty initiatives, where under-resourced communities are given inadequate gifts or grants by funders unwilling to address the fundamental inequities and systemic oppressions that contribute to poverty, the advocacy of human rights can be accomplished by economically and politically secure professionals without involving impacted and oppressed communities in community building, organizing, or political empowerment. AWHA’s Ayala states, “We wish to lean into things that are uncomfortable. Youth want to go there, to talk about centering policy responses on intersectionality. This comes out of our frustration.”

Middleton adds, “Our leadership body recognized that some youth simply have more barriers. If we can end homelessness for the most marginalized, youth of color and LGBTQ+ youth, then we can end homelessness for everyone.”

For the young leaders at AWHA, youth homelessness exists today largely due to America’s history of structural racism and systemic inequities. They seek to center the importance of racial equity and justice in all their work to end youth homelessness. The clarity of their vision is compelling: America will not end youth homelessness without getting to the liberation for Black, brown, Indigenous, youth of color, and LGBTQ+ youth. Middleton shares their approach this way, “Let’s figure out systems for the most marginalized and then we will help everyone. Let’s make bold policy statements versus incremental steps.”

From this vision, AWHA launched the New Deal to End Long-Term Homelessness for Youth. The New Deal gives concrete policy proposals not only to reform systems but also to create system transformation. Youth leaders have shown us they have the capabilities to approach complex social issues and are presenting a bold vision to advance equity and end homelessness. For example, in ending homelessness, AWHA envisions a future where housing is a human right, an entitlement. They demand that people have access to the housing supports and social services they need to achieve housing stability. This would be accomplished by abolishing the need for congregate shelters, making housing an entitlement for youth and young adults through rental assistance, and making the delivery of these services governed by, and in collaboration with, Black, brown, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ community members.

Youth also demand a transformation of the child welfare system, with the New Deal calling for the abolition of foster care and divestment of congregate care. The youth see a future where youth homelessness will not end until the United States replaces government foster care agencies, which for decades have disproportionately divided families of color, and creates a front door of child and family well-being systems run by community-based organizations. Additionally, youth leaders are calling for the establishment of unrestricted access to universal basic income, direct cash assistance, increases in earned income tax credits, free legal assistance, and greater access to treatment.

Middleton is now able to proclaim, “We are now the room. The room that young people should be where decisions are made.”

When asked how lawyers and judges can contribute to youth leadership in the development of human rights, Ayala shared, “Lawyers and judges have power, but they need to step aside and give space to youth. We still have to elbow our way in. Lawyers should ask, ‘How can I encourage you and stop underestimating you?’”

Darla Bardine, executive director of NN4Y and a member of the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, wants attorneys to think about how the judicial system can increase access to youth. “This isn’t just about individual rights and representation,” Bardine says. “It is about the need for lawyers and judges to work to change the system. What are lawyers and judges doing to keep youth out of harmful systems that perpetuate systemic racism and inequity? What are they doing to ensure youth are provided with supportive services, have the right to consent to shelter, and have the ability to easily access a valid government ID and other vital docs?”

In the end, the advancement of human rights or policy proposals to end youth homelessness is grounded in our personal relationship with youth experiencing homelessness. As Berry-Harris reminds us, “if we really saw youth as equals, we would not have homelessness.”

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Rich Hooks Wayman

President and CEO, Volunteers of American Northern New England

Rich Hooks Wayman is president and CEO of a regional housing and social service nonprofit organization, Volunteers of America Northern New England. He has also served as the national executive director for the Children’s Defense Fund, was a policy analyst with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and authored the Minnesota Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. Rich and his husband, Aaron, are foster-adoptive parents who have adopted six children. Rich is a member of the American Bar Association and has been appointed to its Commission on Homelessness and Poverty.