October 01, 2013

Learning from Homeless Youth: A Lawyer's Journey

Claire Chiamulera

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.

When lawyer Kevin Ryan arrived in 1992 at Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth in New York City, his eyes opened to a dark underworld. A stream of youth entered his life, their stories unfolding like a ton of bricks. They would test his spirit and ultimately shape the narrative of his book, Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, co-written with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tina Kelley. 

Ryan and Kelley shared those stories and how they shaped their book at the ABA’s 15th Annual Conference on Children and the Law in Washington, DC, July 12, 2013. 


One of the first young people Ryan met at Covenant House was Binnie. She had lost her mom when she was young and was placed with her aunt, who prostituted her for money. She was de-enrolled from school, cut off from family and friends, and required to do the chores in her aunt’s home. At age 15, she was serially raped by a neighbor with the aunt’s consent. At 17, she ran away, finding shelter at the Port Authority bus terminal. A week later she was sent to Covenant House. Ryan recalled how she sat hunched, rocking herself as she told her story, her bloodshot eyes diverted to the floor.

“That moment, September 7, 1992 was a solar eclipse,” said Ryan. “I lost the sun in my life and began to feel a measure of darkness and suffering that was unknown to me. It certainly wasn’t part of the scaffolding of my life and it felt foreign and I was very worried about it.”

Next came a young pregnant woman who was living in the Amtrak tunnel between New Jersey and New York City. Ryan met her during a street outreach program in October 1992. She had been trafficked in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City before being discarded by her gang when she became pregnant. “I didn’t know there were kids living in the Amtrak tunnels…,” said Ryan. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.”

That November, Ryan joined a group of young men who were singing at a table. Up for a song, he joined them as they harmonized to Boyz II Men. He quickly realized they were singing songs they wanted sung at their funerals; they had all been diagnosed with HIV and one had AIDS. As they shared their stories, he learned they all were gay. Two had been pushed out by their families to the streets and had engaged in survival sex and had become infected. 

“While that’s not the death sentence for teenagers today, it certainly was back then,” said Ryan. “In three years they were all dead. I had no experience being part of a world or an ecosystem where young people were living with and muddling through and trying to make sense of fatal illness.”  


Lost in the darkness of Covenant House, Ryan turned angry. “I became beyond frustrated; I became angry at parents and families and began to see them as the enemy,” he said. Drawing on his legal training, he began thinking about vindication, about protecting these youths’ rights. “I thought if we could just get these kids emancipated or freed from their families, just get these kids on a different trajectory, they’d be fine,” he said.

Disillusioned by the weight of that task and by the grim world surrounding him, Ryan chose another path. He wanted out. “I lost myself, lost my story, lost my way,” he recalled. “I decided to get out of Covenant House as soon as possible because it was killing me.” There on a two-year fellowship, Ryan opted to finish and move on. “I remember thinking that at the end of these two years, this will be a lovely thing to say that I did,” he said.


But then Ryan ran into Binnie—at Rachel’s Restaurant at 43rd and E. “For the first time, I realized she’s taller than me because she’s standing upright and she’s beaming,” he recalled. “Her eyes are beautiful and she comes up and gives me a big hug.” 

He learns Binnie’s aunt and one of the men involved in her prostitution were both in jail and that she participated in the prosecution in a meaningful way. She’s working at the restaurant by day and attending nursing school at night with the goal of working in a neonatal intensive care unit with infants with complex medical needs. She’s also met a boy who loves her in the right way.

For Ryan, the questions started firing: “How does someone go from losing their sense of family, being commoditized, only understanding sexual intimacy in the most brutal fashion, being forced to fend for yourself as a teenager eating out of trash bins to finding some sense of protection at a shelter for homeless young people—one of the saddest places to be?” 

“How do you go from that to deciding you’re going to give your life to helping other women’s sick children get better?” he asked. “How does that happen? What is the process that makes our spirit buoyant? What brings us so alive that we decide to make an impact, to return good, to be our best selves in the world?” 

Ryan realized that Covenant House had been Binnie’s bridge, her hook into some sense of return into civilization and humanity. He began to see that some of what he had done and the skills he had used had helped her and had been healing for her. He also knew there was a larger set of experiences driving the transformation that he wanted to explore. “I really wanted to know what makes kids come alive again?” he said. 

New Narratives

As Ryan stayed at Convenant House, he began thinking about the culture and stereotypes surrounding homeless youth. “I knew that people thought about [these] young people in ways that were less than wonderful.” In New Orleans they were “gutter punks,” “prostitutes” on the Hollywood strip, and the “gang culture” in Atlantic City. He saw that the experiences of young people struggling on the streets get rationalized in the culture and what they get called. “We live with that narrative,” he said. 

Ryan recalled an incident in New Orleans three years earlier involving eight homeless youth who were incinerated on one of the coldest nights. As people began searching for answers, the common thinking was that this was more than a lack of affordable housing problem. It was “gutter punks” blowing off safe and stable families who’d made poor choices. Such narratives shape the public’s view of homeless youth.

Ryan saw he was part of a movement that could help change the narrative. “[W]hen I got to Covenant House and met these extraordinary, brave, often courageous young people I learned that the least interesting thing about them was their homelessness -- they were artists and poets and students and athletes and rappers and teachers. I became so engaged in their stories and wanted to know more about them and cheerlead for them…” 

“[I]f we could answer the question What makes one’s spirit come alive? and if we could show in a deep meaningful way the faces of six or seven diverse homeless young people across Canada and the United States, people would get excited and the labels would get stripped away and people would set themselves into the movement of being for young people.” 

Invisible to Visible

Ryan enlisted Kelley to help write Almost Home. “We needed to find the right combination of kids that would tell the story of homelessness in America for kids under 21,” said Kelley. They looked for kids who put a face to common experiences of homeless youth: those who age out of foster care, trafficking victims, gay youth kicked from homes. 

They also sought stories of youth who’d made it: a youth who’d benefitted from mentoring at a shelter, and a youth who was giving back to society after bouncing in and out of a shelter 11 times. 

“One question the book sought to answer was what gets a kid from point A to point B,” said Kelley. “Often it’s someone who believes in the youth 100% and holds them to a higher standard.” She said their research consistently found that if there was one grownup who takes a kid aside and says: You’re special. You have a dream, tell me what it is. What can I do to help you get that?—often that’s just the lifeline that’s needed. 


As the stories unfolded so did a landscape in need of reform. “Each year about two million young people experience an episode of homelessness,” said Kelley. Among them are kids who age out of the foster care system with no place to call home; 26,000 kids who age out each year without a permanent family end up on the streets before their mid-twenties. 

 “Sex trafficking and labor trafficking is huge problem that is deeply misunderstood by the people who can do something about it,” said Kelley. The victims are reticent to talk for fear of repercussions. Finding one person who was willing to tell their story was one of the greatest challenges in writing Almost Home.

LGBT youth comprise large numbers of homeless youth. In some cities, the homeless youth population is 40% lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender,” said Kelley. They are especially vulnerable to depression, violence, rape, physical abuse, and suicide. 

Kelley praised existing reforms, particularly those aimed at older youth in foster care—securing permanent homes, extending the foster care age to 21, increasing the number of permanency connections for youth through aggressive family-finding outreach, and avoiding foster care placements by providing vulnerable families wraparound services and differential response. Such efforts make a difference. 

A Movement

Growing a movement to support homeless youth nationwide is Ryan and Kelley’s hope and Almost Home is their invitation. Ryan urged child and family advocates to stay the course and to work together. “We can become outmatched by the scale of poverty and violence, of homophobia and racism, of all of the forces that sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally conspire to undue our kids,” said Ryan. “There’s not one of us who can fix this by ourselves, not even the judges. We have to do this together.”

The biggest mistake in this work for me is when I’ve thought that I’m something other, something different, something better than the kids I work with,” said Ryan. “The great joy of this work . . . is finding ways that the kids have been a teacher and coach and mentor to me and realizing that we are in this together.”

Claire Chiamulera is CLP’s editor. 

Helping Homeless Youth: Eight Simple Steps for Child Advocates

  1. Mentor a homeless youth. Having someone who believes in the youth and holds him to a higher standard is often the catalyst the youth needs to reach his potential.

  2. Know that homeless youth often fail before they succeed. Avoid dismissing a youth based on the youth’s choices or mistakes. Remember that they’re kids and embrace the values of mercy, forbearing, and patience.

  3. Think about kids aging out of foster care earlier. Don’t wait until youth age out of foster care without a permanent home. Form partnerships with organizations and community advocates to explore strategies to prevent youth leaving care to homelessness. Work with courts to ensure no foster youth exits care without a permanent home.

  4. Work with state legislatures to make policy changes that support homeless youth. Examples include extending the foster care age to 21 under the Fostering Connections to Success Act, requiring swifter permanency for children in foster care, and supporting educational services for homeless youth.

  5. Find creative ways to work in an interdisciplinary way to problem solve. The Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, a partnership between the University of Michigan Law School Child Advocacy Clinic and the Michigan Department of Human Services, is one example. The Center provides legal assistance to at-risk families in Detroit to help them stay together and avoid out-of-home placements.

  6. Use approaches that keep at-risk families together and avoid foster care placement. Wraparound services, differential response, and restorative justice allow at-risk children to remain in their homes with supports.

  7. View child trafficking as a child welfare problem and form new alliances to address it. In a random survey conducted by Covenant House of 200 homeless youth living in New York City’s largest homeless shelter, 23% had engaged in survival sex or experienced trafficking. Many described their experiences as being coerced by a lack of shelter. Identify the human trafficking advocates in your community and explore how to work with them to problem solve for youth trafficking victims. The fight against human trafficking is child welfare work with a statutory framework in most states.

  8. Know that no one can do this work alone. The success of efforts to address youth homelessness depends on collaboration among the child welfare community, courts and legal advocates, homeless advocates, service providers and others. 

Learn more about Almost Home.

Six Risk Factors for Homelessness

What predicts homelessness among youth leaving foster care? A recent study by researchers at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago sought answers. While high rates of homelessness among former foster youth who age out of care are well documented, little is known about the factors that place youth at greatest risk.

Six Risk Factors

The researchers used survey data from the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, which followed over 700 youth aged 17 or 18 from 2002-2003 through 2010-2011 when they were age 26 as they transitioned from foster care in three states (Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin).

The study found one in three of the young people experienced homelessness for at least one night after aging out of foster care. The researchers found six factors increased the risk of homelessness for these youth:

  1. History of running away from foster care placement
  2. Foster care placement changes
  3. Being male
  4. Physical abuse history before entering foster care
  5. Delinquent behaviors
  6. Having symptoms of a mental health disorder 

Practice Tips

The researchers suggested the following steps to prevent homelessness for youth leaving foster care:

  • Ensure all youth have a concrete plan for housing after aging out.
  • Provide opportunities for youth to build financial assets.
  • Increase availability of housing assistance for transitioning youth.
  • Offer hands-on housing search assistance.
  • Ensure greater availability of transitional living programs.
  • Evaluate interventions to identify which approaches are most effective.

For more information, see Inside the Research: Predictors of Homelessness during the Transition from Foster Care to Adulthood