October 02, 2017 Articles

Can Pro Bono Legal Services Help to End Youth Homelessness?

By Cathy Krebs and Shannon Prown

Every year, more than two million children and youth in America will face a period of homelessness. Almost 40 percent of the homeless in the United States are under age 18. Many more are between the ages of 18 and 26. Fifty percent of adolescents aging out of foster care and juvenile justice systems will be homeless within six months because the state has not prepared them to live independently, nor have they ensured that the youth have the supports they need to be successful. According to a study of youth in shelters, nearly 50 percent reported intense conflict or physical harm by a family member as a major contributing factor to their homelessness. Multiple studies have found that approximately 40 percent of the youth homeless population are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), a far higher percentage than the general population. One study found that 32 percent of homeless youth are black, more than double their representation in the general population. Once on the streets, homeless youth are at serious risk of violence. In the United States, as many as 20,000 kids are forced into prostitution by human trafficking networks every year.

These are hard truths to confront. Yet, while these numbers are overwhelming, there is real opportunity for the legal community to make a difference. Providing legal services can make a dramatic impact on the life trajectory of a homeless youth and can literally make the difference between life on the streets and a life of stability and success. The American Bar Association (ABA) has launched a project to make it easy for any lawyer and law firm to get involved.

How Can Legal Services Help?
Homeless youth include children or minors under the age of 18 as well as young adults who are age 18–26 and lack permanent reliable shelter, including those who couch surf, stay with friends, try to secure beds in a homelessness program, or otherwise have unstable shelter. Youth who are "unaccompanied," meaning they are not with their family, come to homelessness due to a variety of factors, including family violence and rejection and/or aging out of the foster care or juvenile justice system.

Youth experiencing homelessness may have a variety of factors that make it challenging to remedy their situation.

  • If a youth does not have identification, he or she may not be able to enroll in school, apply for benefits, or even enter certain buildings.

  • In the United States, life-sustaining activities like sleeping and eating are often criminalized for the homeless, meaning that homeless youth often have arrests, tickets, or convictions on their record that can seriously impact a youth's ability to secure housing or employment.

Legal services that address the above and other issues can literally change the direction in a youth's life by giving him or her access to things like health care, education, housing, benefits, and employment. Whether in the short term or long term, legal services can literally make the difference between a youth living on the street and securing safety, stability, and a path forward for the future.

But I Don't Know Anything about Representing Homeless Youth!
Like any broad demographic, the legal needs of homeless youth can be diverse depending on what brought them to that state. They have often experienced (or are still experiencing) trauma that can make forming a trusting lawyer-client relationship challenging. Many youth may have no access to telephones or other reliable means of communication, and they can likely not afford to get to your office. Given these many challenges, how can a lawyer who does not work with homeless youth full time provide legal representation for this population? The ABA's Homeless Youth Legal Network (HYLN) Pro Bono project has an answer to that question.

The ABA through its Commission on Homelessness & Poverty, Commission on Youth at Risk, and Section of Litigation Children's Rights Litigation Committee has created the HYLN as the result of an ABA Enterprise Fund grant. HYLN is focused on increasing legal services for youth and young adults experiencing homelessness, and it provides information and fosters collaboration in order to help lawyers and other advocates address existing gaps in legal services. So far HYLN has launched a website, surveyed more than 300 individuals and groups regarding the legal needs of youth in their community, identified 12 model programs across the country to highlight promising practices, and launched a listserv for attorneys and other advocates for homeless youth with more than 250 members. HYLN is also equipped to provide training and technical assistance to legal service providers and homelessness programs.

ABA President Hilarie Bass has built on that network to launch HYLN Pro Bono, a project through which lawyers, law firms, bar associations, and in-house counsel will be matched with homeless youth shelters and drop-in centers around the country. Once connected, volunteer lawyers will work with shelter staff to determine the best approach to providing legal assistance. Some of the options include: direct representation of individual youth; live legal clinics to represent groups of youth who all have similar legal needs, for example obtaining identification documents; and live legal education or "Know Your Rights" presentations to teach youth about important issues such as rights as employees and job applicants.

You do not have to do this work alone! The ABA stands ready to support your work:

  • You will have access to a primer for volunteers with more information about the legal issues that you might encounter, as well as good information on communicating with youth who might have experienced a great deal of trauma; and

  • Through HYLN, the ABA will be able to provide support to volunteer lawyers as they take on this critical work.

A lawyer can make a huge impact on the trajectory of a young person's life and help address the tragedy of homelessness in the United States. To learn more about volunteering, email HYLNprobono@americanbar.org or visit the HYLN Pro Bono website.

Cathy Krebs is the committee director for the ABA Section of Litigation Children's Rights Litigation Committee. Shannon Prown is the director of business development and marketing-litigation at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP in Philadelphia. She is also the cochair of the Pro Bono Task Force of the ABA Section of Litigation. This article is part of a year-long celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Children's Rights Litigation Committee.


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