Help the ABA Address the Legal Needs of Homeless Youth

Sally Heuker
There are an estimated 1.7 million homeless youth in the United States.

There are an estimated 1.7 million homeless youth in the United States.

Highwaystarz-Photography/iStock/GettyImages Plus via GettyImages

In 1991, the American Bar Association established the Commission on Homelessness and Poverty (Commission) to educate the bar and the public on homelessness issues, train lawyers in providing pro bono legal services, and spot legal barriers to self-sufficiency. Over the years, the Commission has developed several important initiatives, including the Homeless Youth Legal Network (HYLN), the Homeless and Low-Income Veterans Justice Initiative, the Anti-Poverty Initiative, and the Homeless Courts Initiative. New attorneys interested in working with homeless youth and looking to make a difference can join HYLN in its efforts and gain invaluable legal experience.

As of 2019, there are an estimated 1.7 million homeless youth in the United States. Many factors contribute to and perpetuate homelessness and poverty across the country, including disconnection from familial support, traumatic experiences, and challenges meeting basic needs. HYLN is the only national network connecting and equipping lawyers and other advocates with the tools to ensure that youth experiencing homelessness receive free legal services to eliminate these barriers, which can make all the difference in terms of housing or education access. HYLN provides information and fosters collaboration to help attorneys and other advocates address existing gaps in legal services and improve outcomes for homeless youth and young adults—including those transitioning from the child welfare system and exiting the juvenile justice system. HYLN’s focus includes civil legal matters, juvenile and criminal defense, and policy and systems change efforts for minors and young people through the age of 25.

New lawyers interested in pro bono work can access the Pro Bono Primer, HYLN’s volunteer attorney guide. Pro bono attorneys address issues related to lack of identification, family violence, access to benefits, inability to consent or contract, credit issues, outstanding warrants, unpaid fines and fees, juvenile or criminal records, and involvement with the child protective system. The primer provides an overview of the legal and personal issues a new pro bono attorney may encounter working with youth experiencing homelessness and provides numerous resources for handling those issues.

HYLN provides a bevy of other resources for new attorneys interested in public interest. It recently updated its directory of legal services providers to include more than 30 states, highlighting free legal services providers for unaccompanied homeless youth—a desperately needed resource considering many states have few if any providers. Within the directory are 12 model programs from across the country. The directory’s value is clear in the HYLN Impact Report: these programs assist with varied legal issues, from protective orders to record expungement and immigration to emancipation.

With help from funders and dedicated volunteer members of the Commission, HYLN hosts community-led roundtables and other events across the country. These programs facilitate network-, strategy-, and information-building to increase local homeless youth’s access to legal resources related to education, the justice system, and more. HYLN has also produced two important other resources, the publication and CLE/webinar series, Educating Students Experiencing Homelessness (5th Ed.), which help educators understand and comply with the McKinney-Vento Act—critical federal legislation that ensures access to education for homeless youth who otherwise may not be able to enroll in or attend school.

HYLN additionally works at a systemic level to effect policy and other change. Most recently, the ABA passed Resolutions 301, endorsing the UN General Comment No. 21 on Children in Street Situations, and 113, calling for integrated, systemic approaches within administrative, civil, and criminal court contexts to address the special needs of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. HYLN also published the Runaway and Homeless Youth and the Law: Model State Statutes, to encourage lawmakers to consider homeless youth in lawmaking and understand the breadth of issues such lawmaking should address. And, the ABA and the Commission engage at the federal level, supporting youth-focused policy, and opposing policy that would contribute to the cycle of poverty.

HYLN will continue to develop resources, build the HYLN directory, shepherd ABA Resolutions, support federal advocacy that increases access to legal services for youth experiencing homelessness, and facilitate the creation and networking of legal services providers in underserved areas. Stay connected to learn about services and policy developments through the HYLN Listserv. Engage with HYLN (@ABAHYLN) and the Commission (@ABA_CHP) on Twitter, on Facebook (HYLN) (ABA Commission), and online at www.ambar.org/hyln.

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Sally Heuker is a staff attorney for the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty.