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January 13, 2016 Articles

Ending Youth Homelessness: What Can Litigators Do?

By Angelica Ramos

We've all seen them. They hang out in groups of three or four on the sidewalks outside downtown businesses; several may even have a big dog by their side. They look menacing with their piercings, tattoos, and spiked hair. We can recognize them as homeless youth. And then there are the homeless youth who blend in with local college youth, sipping coffee at Starbucks, probably spending their last dollar.

In the last decade, our nation has witnessed profound changes due to the Great Recession. Unemployment has reached levels not seen in a quarter century. Homeowners and renters alike have been driven from their housing by foreclosures to compete against each other in a tightening rental market. Wages and public assistance benefits have declined in relation to escalating prices for everything from consumer goods to food and housing. Accordingly, those whose financial and personal supports place them at the bottom of the ladder are increasingly only one financial crisis or one episode of family conflict away from homelessness. Yet shelters for families, youth, single adults, and victims of domestic violence often do not have room to help them when homelessness does occur. Many of those who become homeless stay in shelters for prolonged periods because they lack the resources to move back into housing. Thus, beds that were designed to meet temporary crises are not available to serve those experiencing them.

The problem of youth homelessness in America can be solved if the greater society—specifically litigators representing youth—recognize the factors impacting youth homelessness, understand the specific service delivery system that will address the unique needs of youth, and allocate the necessary resources to implement that system.

Youth are defined as individuals between the ages of 12–24. For the purposes of developing housing and programs, the age range is split between youth ages 12–17 who are considered minors, and transition age youth (TAY) ages 18–24. The broad definition of a homeless youth is an individual, 12–24 years of age, who is living on his or her own without a parent or guardian, and lacking a stable or permanent address. The lack of a stable or permanent address may include being literally homeless—staying at a shelter or sleeping on the street, in parks, in cars, or in abandoned buildings. It may also include couch surfing, defined as finding temporary shelter with friends or family with no legal right to stay and with their continued housing totally at the discretion of the landlord/tenant.

Many of the factors that impact youth homelessness are specific to youth and differ from other homeless populations. Some of these factors are:

  • Youth are physically, emotionally, psychologically, and socially still developing—this is a period of critical brain development, and trauma adversely affects that development leading to lack of judgment and poor decision making.
  • They have little or no work experience.
  • They have not completed high school either because of age or because of homelessness or instability in their living situation.
  • They are more likely to have experienced criminal victimization, including sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
  • They lack the life skills such as cooking, money management, housekeeping, and job searching necessary to live independently.
  • They are exiting the foster care or juvenile justice system (or have run away from one of those systems).

Youth often become homeless because they are fleeing family conflict, abuse, neglect, or poverty in their homes. There are additional youth who first experience homelessness when they are with their family who has become homeless. Services to address the problem of youth homelessness need to provide the opportunity for youth to grow and develop as adolescents and transition into adulthood. Prevention and early intervention is critical to successful outcomes. The longer youth are on the street and disconnected from their family, the more likely they are to experience exploitation, physical trauma, and psychological trauma.

The service approach across the continuum of care for homeless youth must have intervention strategies that include:

  • Trauma-informed care (TIC): provides services appropriate for youth who have experienced abuse in their homes and/or trauma in the streets. The approach emphasizes the creation of settings and relationships in which a youth can heal.
  • Positive youth development (PYD): builds on TIC by ensuring that youth have the opportunity to develop transferable skills and competencies through positive interactions with youth and adults. PYD focuses on the youths' strengths and personal goals in guiding them to make healthy choices, build confidence, and feel in control of their lives.
  • Proactive family reconciliation: focuses on counseling youth and their caretakers to address the problems that caused the youth to leave home. The goal is to improve the youths' home life situation so they can return to a supportive environment. Many youth return home to family (however they define family), and this intervention lessens the likelihood that the youth will become homeless again.

Youth Characteristics
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently released The 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress: Part 2. This report is based on the annual point-in-time count for January 2014. Point-in-time counts estimate one-night counts of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations. The one-night counts are conducted by local jurisdictions, are required by HUD, and are generally done every two years. However, different jurisdictions have already conducted their own 2015 point-in-time count and released those findings. Regardless, the 2014 AHAR Part 2 published some key findings. On a single night in January 2014, three states together account for three in five homeless, unaccompanied children found in the nation—California had 28.4 percent, Florida had 19.6 percent, and Nevada had 12.3 percent. No other state accounted for more than 10 percent of the nation's unaccompanied youth.

Youth on the streets experience a number of risk factors that can create further barriers to moving off the streets and into stable housing. Almost three-quarters of the youth surveyed used drugs or alcohol; a third of them had traded sex or drugs or both for a place to stay; more than 10 percent were victims of sexual exploitation; and a third of them reported being burglarized, robbed, or assaulted or physically attacked in the last 12 months.

One of the mitigating factors to the risk factors experienced by the youth is their connection to others; almost half of them reported having someone to rely on in times of crisis, an identified adult they could trust, and some continued contact with family. They also generally reported their physical and mental health as good or very good. The youth remain optimistic about their future, with almost two-thirds seeing their selves as getting into permanent housing; and over three-quarters have a plan for the future and want to further their education.

Housing Programs Available for Homeless Youth
This does not mean that all homeless youth are on the streets. Many have been placed in age-appropriate programs.

Transitional housing placement program (THPP). This program provides congregate living in a licensed facility with onsite supervision for foster youth and young parent families ages 16–18. Intensive case management focuses on completing high school and gaining job and independent living skills, including parenting, money management, and basic household skills, and mental health and substance abuse treatment as needed. The program is funded through the county social services on a per-client per-month rate basis. Most youth will transition into THP+FC to continue to develop the skills and resources necessary to be self-sufficient.

Transitional housing placement plus foster care (THP+FC). This program provides congregate or scattered site living with intensive case management for foster youth and young parent families ages 18–21. All sites must meet licensing guidelines, and the youth (nonminor dependents) are still under the jurisdiction of the court and continue to have a social worker and six-month court reviews. Intensive case management focuses on continuing education, employment, independent living skills, and health and well-being. The county contracts with service providers and pays a set fee per client per month. Youth may transition to THP+ to be able to complete their postsecondary education and earn a livable wage.

Transitional housing placement plus (THP+). The primary placement option for THP+ is scattered site apartments where the youth hold the lease and the rent is subsidized from the monthly placement rate paid by the county. Six units at the San Jose State University dorms are for youth who are attending a postsecondary education program full time. Youth and young parent families are eligible if they have emancipated from the foster care or juvenile justice system and are between the ages of 18–24. Youth may remain in the program for up to 36 months or to the day before their twenty-fifth birthdays, and the monthly rate amount remains the same for the duration of the program. The county contracts with service providers who administer the program. Intensive case management focuses on education, employment, community connections, and landlord/tenant relations, and youth transition in place at the end of the program.

Transitional housing program (THP). This program provides congregate housing for homeless youth and single young parent families ages 18–24 for up to 12 months with six months of aftercare upon graduation from the program. The program is funded through grants from HUD, and youth are eligible if they are literally homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness as defined by HUD. This is a low barrier program, and youth are admitted even if they have mental health, substance abuse, physical, or criminal background issues as long as they can benefit from the program. Intensive case management focuses on stabilizing the youths' living situation and providing support on education, employment, parenting, independent living skills, and connecting with family and community resources. Successful transition from this program is to permanent housing either with family or in a subsidized or market rate room or apartment.

Maternity group home (MGM). This is a congregate living site for homeless pregnant and parenting youth between the ages of 18–22 at entry to the program. The program provides for housing for up to 18 months at the site with six months of aftercare services. It is funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and case management focuses on developing a birth plan, parenting, and support in finding child care, completing education (e.g., GED, high school diploma), and finding employment through weekly individual and group meetings and weekly parenting classes.

Permanent supportive housing (PSH). These are scattered site apartments for homeless youth or young parent families who meet the HUD definition of literally homeless and with at least one adult in the family with a disabling condition. Intensive case management focuses around education, employment, benefits, and independent living skills, and mental health and substance abuse treatment are offered but not required for housing eligibility.

Rapid rehousing. This program provides a way for homeless individuals or families to move into permanent housing through three core components: housing identification, rent and move-in assistance, and rapid rehousing case management and services. The rental subsidy is typically for no more than six months but could extend up to 24 months with additional funding sources if the extra time was needed to provide the housing stability necessary to prevent future episodes of homelessness. The goal is to move the homeless individual or family into housing within 30 days; assist with move-in costs of deposits, rent, and/or utility payments; and provide targeted case management that will enable them to maintain the housing after the subsidy ends.

Transition in place. Participants in scattered site transitional housing programs stay in their apartment when the program ends, with the rental agreement in their name and responsibility for paying all of the rent and utilities.

Litigation in Support of Homeless Youth
Attorneys representing youth often specialize in child welfare and/or juvenile delinquency practices. Generally speaking, it is rare for practitioners to become experts in "homeless youth law." The path to homelessness is usually complicated for those under age 25, as previously discussed earlier in this article. While most service models provide prevention, intervention, and placement for homeless youth, it's important to note the stark lack of litigation on issues affecting homeless youth. The reason for this is simple—children's rights always seem to be overlooked by lawmakers. But this could all change if a 2013 class action lawsuit against the City of New York finds that the City has violated the rights of its homeless youth. Victoria Bekiempis, "Lawsuit Could Change Fate of New York City's Homeless Youth," Newsweek (Nov. 8, 2015).

The federal suit, C.W. v. City of New York, No. 1:13-cv-07376 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 30, 2013), argues that all homeless and runaway youth in New York City (NYC) have a right to age-specific shelter beds. Unlike adults and families, who can stay indefinitely in shelters, homeless youth are only permitted to stay up to 60 days in beds specific to their demographic. This is not an isolated policy. Most, if not all, states have similar guidelines based on federal legislation known as the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA). First enacted in 1978, the basic premise of the RHYA outlines that any youth seeking shelter in a runaway and homeless youth shelter should be housed.

In C.W., the plaintiffs are current and former homeless youth as represented by Legal Aid Society and NYC law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler. They brought a class action complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief to challenge the acts and omissions of NYC as a violation of their civil rights. They seek "relief on behalf of themselves and similarly situated individuals to redress the City's violations of their rights, privileges, and immunities" protected under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution; the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. section 1983; the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. sections 12117, 12132 et seq.; section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. sections 794, 794a(a)(2); and New York City Administrative Code section 8-107(4)(a). Specifically, the plaintiffs argue that when the City denies youth shelter to homeless youth ages 16–20 and evicts these youth from shelters to the street without fair process, the City denies them due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.

If the court enters judgment for the plaintiffs and against the City of New York, the available remedies include: issuing a permanent order requiring the City to provide youth shelter and services to any homeless youth ages 16–20; prohibiting the City from denying those services or evicting the youth from shelter without due process; requiring the City to provide crisis shelter for all runaway youth as proscribed in the RHYA; requiring the City to maintain a sufficient number of crisis shelter beds; and requiring the City to provide reasonable accommodations to homeless youth with disabilities to allow them to access youth shelter and services. In NYC, which has reported nearly 4,000 kids sleeping on the streets, these orders could reduce the amount of homeless youth on the streets. These remedies are important not only for the youth affected, but the community at large. When youth are given a safe placement, they can start to rebuild their lives and connections to the community.

The outcome of this case might have a strong impact on the current crisis of youth homelessness. A multitude of jurisdictions are combatting a housing and homelessness crisis (e.g., Los Angeles, NYC, San Francisco); but homeless youth seem to be a low priority or they are lumped into the general population. The RHYA provides for the age-appropriate placements of youth with the creation of street outreach programs, basic shelter center services, transitional housing, and accurate data collection. These are important tenets because outreach to runaway, homeless, and human trafficked youth aim to build relationships and refer youth to vital services at street locations and drop-in centers. Yet federal legislation as it relates to youth (the Homeless Children and Youth Act, RHYA, Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act) have either stalled or are simply inadequate to provide the tools available to end youth homelessness. It seems constitutional litigation can impact systems for homeless youth, and this is where child advocates and attorneys can play a big role. Some examples of challenges attorneys can bring are already outlined in C.W.'s class action. Attorneys can bring a cause of action against the government for violating the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act for failure to reasonably accommodate, and violations of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Because there is no uniform law governing the legal representation of minors and transition aged youth, lawyers should look at federal statutes and laws under which their clients are protected, regardless of age.

Responding to youth homelessness will take hard work, commitment, and collaboration on the part of all community stakeholders. It requires continuous monitoring and improvement to refine best practices, information, and investments. Most communities believe in the resiliency of youth and believe that each of them should have the opportunity to realize and maximize their potential. There is no magic bullet that will solve the youth homelessness crisis; however, advocating on behalf of and for our community's most vulnerable population will help move the needle for innovative solutions in the name of doing what is in the best interest of the child.

The path out of youth homelessness will be built upon a foundation of strong families, housing options that meet the unique needs of youth, and training and employment. Youth caught up in the cycle of homelessness require reliable and uninterrupted provision of services to address a complex array of issues. Stability is critical if youth are to be allowed to fail, learn from their mistakes, and try again. And finally, if the federal court in C.W. grants relief to the plaintiffs, this could be precedent to enhance current laws and legislation that protect and support youth.

Keywords: litigation, children's rights, youth homelessness, housing programs, constitutional litigation

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Angelica Ramos – January 13, 2016