An Invisible Population
Homeless, unaccompanied youth (youth who are homeless and on their own, without parents or guardians) face significant barriers to accessing services and supports. The actual number of homeless youth is unknown at a statewide or national level; homeless youth are an invisible population, because they are often not connected to traditional services for homeless adults, and because the collection of data regarding homeless youth from schools, the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, or other agencies has traditionally been an undercount. National and state efforts to count, and therefore serve, homeless adults have traditionally missed youth. Currently, there is much work at the national and state levels to address this gap and provide better data. See e.g., Conn. Coal. to End Homelessness, Connecticut Counts: 2015 Report on Homelessness in Connecticut; Voices of Youth Count, http://voicesofyouthcount.org/.
Providers and lawyers who work with youth in Connecticut describe existing supports for homeless youth as “woefully insufficient to meet the demands and needs.” Derrick M. Gordon & Bronwyn A. Hunter, Consultation Ctr., Yale Univ. Sch. of Med., Invisible No More: Creating Opportunities for Youth Who Are Homeless 39 (2013). Homeless youth are at increased risk for a host of poor outcomes, including sexual abuse, being lured into prostitution, physical abuse, criminal justice involvement, illness, suicide, mental health problems, and substance abuse. Educational achievement is significantly impacted by homelessness, which is why federal McKinney-Vento laws aim to protect these students.
While homeless youth have a variety of backgrounds and experiences that led to their becoming homeless, they share common barriers to stable housing and educational achievement:
- There is no coordinated service delivery system for homeless youth in many states. While agencies are generally aware of services available for homeless adults or families, schools and community agencies who encounter a homeless youth often have no place to refer them.
- Homeless youth have difficulty navigating the fragmented service system on their own.
- While some services for homeless youth exist, many youth are unaware of the services or do not connect with a service when referred.
- Existing laws can help youth access education and housing-related supports; however, youth are rarely aware of their legal rights.
Because of these gaps, lawyers working with unaccompanied homeless youth need to bring their services to locations where young people spend their time. At a recent conference hosted by the federal Family and Youth Services Bureau and the American Bar Association, lawyers and practitioners gathered to talk about strategies to address these systemic gaps. One of the prominent themes repeated over the course of two days was the need to bring legal services to bear on the issues faced by youth experiencing homelessness. The Center for Children’s Advocacy (CCA), a private nonprofit law firm in Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, does just that through its legal office on wheels—a mobile legal office (MLO).
CCA’s mission is to improve systems’ responses to the needs of poor Connecticut children and youth. CCA advocates for children and youth through a dynamic blend of training, individual representation, and systemic advocacy. Each year, CCA represents more than 750 children and youth and secures substantial systemic reforms that benefit thousands more. CCA attorneys have offices inside health care sites, schools, and community programs; meet with children at child welfare and juvenile justice placements throughout the state; and collaborate with private and public agencies across multiple systems to educate system personnel about the legal rights of children and advance systemic reforms. Because of this, the MLO was a natural extension of CCA’s philosophy of bringing legal services directly to children and youth.
A Law Office on Wheels
The MLO is unique in that it literally brings legal services to youth in the community through a mobile office, one of only a few in the country. CCA received a capital grant to purchase a van that was then customized into a mobile legal office. The MLO has a desk, chairs, and file cabinet (all secured to the van), as well as Wi-Fi capacity to be able to provide legal services on-site at any location. The MLO is staffed with an attorney and an outreach coordinator who bring the van to locations where youth congregate. These sites include youth development organizations, an alternative high school, and the public library, including one branch that has a teen hangout space. The locations, and the dates and times the MLO will be present at the locations, are posted on a teen-friendly website and social media outlets (including Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat) so that youth who are moving around can access the mobile services. When a youth seeks services from the MLO, the MLO:
- Conducts an assessment of immediate and long-term needs in a legal context.
- Reviews the youth’s educational situation and works with contacts in the school system to help the youth access appropriate educational services to which he or she is legally entitled.
- Identifies services and supports to which the youth is legally entitled, and provides legal representation to help the youth access those services and supports. These can include child welfare services to which the youth can be reintroduced; income supports that can enable the youth to pay for housing or contribute to the housing costs of an adult with whom the youth can live; and housing and income supports for disabled and otherwise eligible youth.
- Identifies factors with a legal component that increase the risk of homelessness, including domestic violence, undocumented status, lack of health insurance, and juvenile justice system involvement, and provides legal representation to address the issues.
CCA began the MLO in 2015 to target unaccompanied (without parents or guardians) youth who are homeless and youth at imminent risk of becoming homeless who are 12–21 years old. Because some groups of youth are disproportionately represented among homeless youth, many of the youth served by the MLO share characteristics with these groups, including LGBT youth, youth with mental illness, young victims of sex trafficking, immigrant youth, youth who have spent time in out-of-home child welfare or juvenile justice placements, and youth with abuse and other trauma histories.
One youth served through the MLO was Tanya. She was 16 years old and pregnant when the violence and threats in her home escalated to the point where she was unsafe. Tanya left and began couch surfing from friend’s house to friend’s house. She heard of the MLO from a community provider who encouraged her to connect with one of the attorneys at a community stop. She had mental health needs that required counseling and special services in school. However, mental health providers would not see her without a parent’s or guardian’s permission, and the absence of a stable address prevented her from attending school regularly. She also didn’t know about her rights to continue attending her school so she didn’t tell anyone about her living situation for fear she would be told she could no longer stay at her school. The child welfare agency was aware of the situation, but remained on the periphery as an observer.
Tanya met with one of the MLO attorneys, who quickly assessed her needs. The attorney then advocated with the child welfare agency for specific supports, educated the mental health provider about the state law allowing minors to receive mental health care without parental consent, and advocated with the school for the services Tanya should have been receiving as a homeless student and a student eligible for special education.
While there are laws on the books to address many of the obstacles faced by youth like Tanya, often youth are not aware of those laws. They do not know that their situation has legal remedies. Because of this, the MLO utilizes its mobility to educate youth and providers about the legal rights of youth experiencing homelessness. By moving to different locations, the MLO can access youth providers at each location and educate them about the legal rights of their clients. This helps to bridge the gap between young people who are fearful of reaching out to adults and a connection to the legal services they need.
Additionally, the MLO developed youth-friendly brochures to provide information about legal rights important to youth experiencing homelessness. These brochures are available to youth through the MLO and at the various partner sites. CCA also developed a dedicated website, Facebook, and Instagram pages, and is utilizing Snapchat to provide teens who are experiencing homelessness with information about resources and legal rights. The website, www.speakupteens.org, is also featured prominently on the side of the van. This advertisement serves to raise awareness of the legal rights among youth so that they can also educate their friends and peers.
In planning this enhancement of CCA’s services, staff consulted with youth from a local youth advisory board to create a design for the exterior of the van that would draw in and be welcoming to homeless youth. CCA also worked with youth who were homeless to plan the MLO’s use of social media and the Internet to provide information for homeless youth. The youth advised CCA on terms used, selected the website logo, and provided suggestions about the presentation of the Facebook and website pages. At the suggestion of youth, CCA also created a bilingual (English and Spanish) video, available on the homepage of the website, of youth telling other youth about the help they received from the MLO. The attorneys for the MLO are also featured.
Initial outcomes for the MLO are positive. Over a recent six-month period, 100 percent of the youth referred were screened to determine legal needs, and this screening identified an average of 1.8 cases per youth. On 98 percent of the legal needs, the MLO took an advocacy action. Advocacy actions included referral, consultation, representation in court or administrative proceeding, and other representation outside of court or administrative proceeding. Of the youth served by the MLO, 87 percent gained either the removal of a risk factor that increases risk of homelessness or the removal of a barrier to a protective factor against homelessness; 90 percent, for whom school status information was available, graduated from high school or were enrolled in and attending high school. In comparison, studies of the homeless youth population have found that 75 percent of homeless or runaway youth have dropped out or will drop out of school.
While legal services alone cannot address all of the barriers faced by youth such as Tanya, bringing them to locations where other supports are available helps to ensure their legal rights are adhered to. As a result of the legal services Tanya received from the MLO, the child welfare agency provided her with transportation to medical appointments and helped her locate a stable home with a friend’s parent, the mental health agency began providing counseling, and the school system waived Tanya’s school fees, adjusted her schedule to account for her long trip to school, and provided her with the special education services she needed. Now, Tanya is attending school and her attendance has improved dramatically. She receives regular mental health care to deal with her past traumas, and her mental health has improved.
What we know is that lawyers cannot wait for young people to come and knock on our door. They are often unaware of their rights and do not realize that a lawyer can help. By bringing legal services to them, and to the people they are connected to, youth are more likely to know about their legal rights and to get assistance in enforcing those rights. As one of our former clients said, “[H]aving a lawyer has helped out and made a huge impact in my life. I was moving from place to place with no stable place to live. . . . [The MLO attorney] helped and fought hard for me to get back into high school. She taught me a few laws and let me know that I should not give up. . . . As a human being we all have rights.” That’s music to any lawyer’s ears.
Stacey Violante Cote is the project director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy’s Teen Legal Advocacy Project in Hartford, Connecticut. Lori Nordstrom is the director of foundation relations at the Center for Children’s Advocacy in Hartford, Connecticut.