May 01, 2017

What Every Children’s Lawyer Should Know about Advocating for Homeless Youth

Brian Blalock, JD, Michael Santos, JD and Casey Trupin, JD

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Youth experiencing homelessness often face daunting barriers accessing supports and services such as health care, emergency cash and food benefits, and education. These supports are even more urgent when considering the prevalence of trauma, violence, and disconnection among youth experiencing homelessness. Children’s lawyers can play a vital role removing barriers and securing services quickly for these youth.

Three Things to Know About Youth Homelessness

1. Not all homelessness is the same.

Youth experience homelessness in different forms—living on the street, staying in an emergency shelter, couch surfing, and living in substandard housing or with others due to housing instability. Complicating matters, youth may not think of themselves as homeless, especially as housing instability becomes normalized. Consequently, homelessness may not be visible to service providers unless there is a dedicated effort to identify, screen, and track whether a youth is experiencing homelessness. 

Further, the term “homeless youth” may refer to distinct populations. The term may refer to any adolescent or young adult (including transition-aged youth up to age 25) experiencing homelessness in any form; or it may refer specifically to “unaccompanied” youth and young adults not in the physical custody of their parents or guardians. Occasionally, the term may refer to children who are homeless with their families, many of whom are quite young. In California, which has the most homeless children in the country, over half are children attending fifth grade or younger.1 This article uses the term largely to refer to adolescents and young adults experiencing homelessness in any form.

Different types of homelessness may require different types of interventions. Some legal entitlements end at different ages (e.g., in most states, you cannot enter foster care after 18; Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic, and Treatment (EPSDT), which can provide community-based mental health services, ends at 21; and special education ends at 22). Legal interventions to stabilize a homeless family often differ from those for an unaccompanied youth under 18. 

2. Unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness are extremely vulnerable to violence and abuse. 

Being an unaccompanied homeless youth2 is often terrifying. Many of these youth are fleeing abuse or severe neglect at home. The 2016 Street Outreach Report3 noted that more than 75% of all surveyed youth had experienced abuse before experiencing homelessness with over half of all youth experiencing physical abuse.4 While homeless, these youth are 80% more likely to be exposed to violence. Almost half of all homeless youth reported being assaulted in the last year they were homeless.5

3. “Runaway” is an empty term. 

The term runaway does not tell an advocate anything legally significant about a youth because the label is missing the most important information—running away from what? The case planning and legal and systems intervention will vastly differ if a youth is running away from an abusive parent, from a trafficker who is looking for her, or from a parent or other caregiver because of acute and untreated mental health needs. In the first scenario, civil legal intervention may involve safety planning and possibly a restraining order to keep the parent away from the youth. The opposite may be true for the last scenario, when the best solution may be a treatment plan that heavily involves the parent or caregiver’s participation. 

Civil Legal Needs of Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Youth experiencing homelessness frequently have civil legal needs in broad substantive areas, including public benefits, health access (e.g., mental health services, pregnant/parenting health care), family law (e.g., domestic violence protections), housing, record sealing and expungement, consumer law, access to education, and more. These multiple legal needs may be too overwhelming for the homeless youth to navigate—making it critical to connect these youth to appropriate legal assistance whenever possible. This can be daunting for a children’s attorney—especially a dependency or delinquency attorney who is already dealing with high caseloads.  

Building Appropriate Civil Legal Interventions 

While it is impractical to build a broad civil legal expertise overnight, there are several ways children’s attorneys can modify their practice to respond to the needs of youth experiencing homelessness. 

Practice tiered intake because advocates can only intervene based on what they know.

Homeless youth and lawyers who advocate for them often do not know much about each other. Youth may only think they have legal needs in limited situations—most frequently when they need to get out of confinement or when they can sue someone for money. Similarly, lawyers may only think youth have legal needs when a lawyer asks the youth and gets an immediate and clear response in return. 

Successful civil legal programs for homeless youth are predicated on allowing legal needs to surface over time. A tiered intake model allows youth to divulge more information as they feel comfortable with their legal advocates. Trauma and/or a history of inconsistent adults who fail to follow through on perceived commitments can make this process necessary and immensely rewarding for the youth and lawyer.   

Similarly, children’s lawyers can only identify civil legal needs if they screen for them. This may be as simple as asking what services youth are currently receiving—community-based mental health services, special education, disability benefits or supplements to the foster care payment, transportation to a previous school they want to attend, and so on. 

Partner with legal aid, homeless youth providers, and the private bar to build programs with public systems involvement.

Once children’s lawyers ask the questions and identify the possible legal needs, they may need backup. One way to build capacity is to involve local legal aid organizations. Legal aid attorneys tend to be experts in many of the substantive civil legal needs outlined above. Very few legal aid programs have dedicated youth homelessness practices. Building partnerships with legal aid programs to create dedicated referral processes, homeless youth shelter legal clinics, or technical assistance hotlines, can be one way for court-appointed attorneys to increase capacity and expertise. 

New funding sources have resulted in legal aid programs where this type of partnership has worked. California’s Bay Area Legal Aid has found that each attorney working with homeless youth recovers on average close to a million dollars per year for his or her clients with the majority coming from federal funding streams.6 This has led to partnerships with local county agencies that provide funding for legal aid to work with these youth going forward. Legal aid can also provide expertise and training to bring in the private bar. (See Partnering to Protect the Legal Rights of Homeless Youth.)

Develop expertise (either with dedicated staff or office-wide) in one area that could make a big impact.

Some programs focus on a specific need and have developed expertise in-house to meet that need. East Bay Children’s Law Office in Oakland, California, follows this model. When they noticed many older youth in extended foster care were ending up homeless, they dedicated staff to work with this population and provide representation in other civil legal areas, such as benefits and eviction defense. 

Bay Area Legal Aid, which already had a broad-based comprehensive services homeless youth practice, recently added an attorney focusing on family law matters for homeless youth survivors of trafficking. Made possible by a Skadden Foundation Fellowship, the attorney has increased visibility of this vulnerable population, providing trainings at local homeless youth shelters and for other providers. Additionally, the attorney has crafted legal remedies for youth—including restraining orders against parents and traffickers and custody orders for youth parents—that were not previously available. Other organizations have dedicated staff to specific substantive legal areas, such as disability benefits, mental health, or education. 

Developing Expertise in Homeless Youth Issues—the Education Example

Central to meeting the needs of homeless children and youth is ensuring their access to stable education. School stability is critical for homeless youth, not only providing continuity during a turbulent time but also leading to improved academic outcomes. Schools are an entry point for vital services like housing, health care, and nutritious meals. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), homeless youth and youth in foster care, including those awaiting foster care, can attend their school of origin if it is in their best interest. (See the article “Advocating for Education Stability for Children in Foster Care,” in this CLP issue.) 

The Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program, under Title VII of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (“McKinney-Vento”), as amended and strengthened by ESSA, guarantees homeless youth some due process if a dispute arises over eligibility, school selection, or enrollment.7 While federal law requires state and local educational agencies to have a dispute resolution process (DRP) in place, the details of those procedures are left for states and school districts to decide.8

The DRP is generally used to address homeless youth’s right to equal access to education, which attorneys can help homeless youth navigate. It provides children’s lawyers opportunities, particularly at the local level, to address other civil legal needs and seek legal remedies for homeless youth who may have been harmed by the school’s denial of their right to attend their school of origin. Additionally, legal advocates can ensure school districts and state educational agencies have robust and reliable DRPs.



Lawyers can play an important role helping youth experiencing homelessness navigate and access the complex system of available supports and services. In addressing the multidimensional legal needs of these youth, different forms of homelessness may require different legal interventions. To ensure that appropriate civil legal interventions are offered to help homeless youth, consider practicing tiered intake, partnering with other legal advocates and homeless youth providers, or developing expertise in-house. Throughout the country, while programs are not meeting the immense need, well-designed legal services are helping youth exit the streets and live successful lives. 


Partnering to Protect the Legal Rights of Homeless Youth

Project LEARN

To ensure legal enforcement and proper implementation of homeless students’ right to educational access and stability, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty created the Lawyers’ Education Access Resource Network (“Project LEARN”). Project LEARN is a peer-to-peer network of legal providers, policy advocates, and private practitioners working on access-to-education issues for students experiencing homelessness. The goal is to develop legal resources, coordinate strategic litigation and advocacy efforts across the country, and provide legal guidance on the education of homeless children and youth. Project LEARN aims to protect the education rights of every child or youth experiencing homelessness in the United States.

ABA Homeless Youth Legal Network

To help more homeless youth receive legal representation, the American Bar Association is undertaking a major new initiative, the Homeless Youth Legal Network (HYLN). HYLN is engaging lawyers, including pro bono attorneys from the private bar, creating a network of legal resources for youth across the country, and highlighting and spreading model programs. 



Brian Blalock, JD, is the law and policy coordinator with the policy division at Tipping Point Community, where he looks at systemic funding issues that create barriers to entitled services and works with public system, provider, and advocate partners to foster solutions to complex problems related to poverty. He was previously the founder and director of the Youth Justice Project (YJP) at Bay Area Legal Aid providing civil legal services and direct representation to youth. 

Michael Santos, JD, is a staff attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty in Washington, D.C. His work focuses on advocating for homeless youth access to education through public education, impact litigation, and policy advocacy. 

Casey Trupin, JD, works to end youth homelessness at the Raikes Foundation in Seattle, Washington. He previously served as the directing attorney for the Children and Youth Project at Columbia Legal Services in Seattle. He has represented thousands of foster youth and homeless adults and worked on state and federal legislation to improve services to low-income children, youth and adults. Casey is a special advisor to the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty and former co-chair of the ABA’s Children’s Rights Litigation Committee. 



1. as reported by the California Department of Education (accessed March 25, 2017). 

2. See 42 U.S.C. 11434A(6), The term “unaccompanied youth” includes a homeless child or youth not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.

3. Street Outreach Report Data Collection Study, April 12, 2016. 

4. The Roadmap: A Five Year Plan to End Family Homelessness in San Francisco, 2016. 

5. Applied Survey Research. San Francisco Homeless Homeless Point-in-Time Count and Survey, July 20, 2015.

6. Alameda County AB 12 Homeless Youth Demonstration Project. Youth Homelessness in the Era of AB 12, March 2013.

7. Full text of the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. §11431 et seq.; see also National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. No Barriers: A Legal Advocate’s Guide to Ensuring Compliance with the Education Program of the McKinney-Vento Act, 2d ed., 2016. 

8. U.S. Department of Education. Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program Non-Regulatory Guidance, Title VII-B of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, as Amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act, Non-Regulatory Guidance, July 27, 2016, 1.

9. Lampkin vs. District of Columbia, 27 F.3d 605 (D.C. Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1016 (1994).