Tackling the Homeless Youth Crisis

Hilarie Bass
Homeless youth sitting on the sidewalk.

Homeless youth sitting on the sidewalk.


Imagine wanting to register for school, but you are turned away for lack of identification documents and you have no family members. Imagine having a chance at your first job that will help pay for food, but without a lawyer to help get a previous minor offense expunged, that door will be slammed in your face. Imagine falling asleep on a park bench because you have nowhere to go, then waking up in handcuffs to find a police officer taking you away. These are challenges some of the more than 500,000 homeless youth in this country, and an estimated 100 million homeless youth worldwide, face daily. The American Bar Association (ABA) believes this is a global civil rights issue, and in August 2017, created the Legal Needs of Homeless Youth Initiative to address problems preventing children in the United States and globally from growing up safely, receiving an education, and leading productive lives.

We urgently need help from lawyers and legal leaders across the country. In the United States, homeless youth lack access to critical legal representation that can remove barriers to benefits, education, employment, housing, identification, and health care. Of the more than 350 shelters and drop-in centers across the United States serving homeless youth, few have access to pro bono legal services. The Legal Needs of Homeless Youth Initiative includes the Homeless Youth Legal Network Pro Bono, which will improve access to legal services by connecting lawyers and law firms with homeless youth shelters and drop-in centers. The ABA matches shelters with volunteer attorneys who will represent homeless youth with legal needs, hold legal clinics to assist homeless youth facing challenges, and offer education sessions to teach youth how to address important legal issues.

A little help can make a big difference. In September 2016 at the ABA’s Homeless Youth Law & Policy Summit, Sharday Hamilton, a Chicago woman, described the legal help that changed her life. She received assistance to obtain identification after living on the streets for several years as a teenager. “Without an ID, you’re nobody,” Hamilton said. “You can’t get a job, you can’t go to school, you can’t get food.” Today, she is a youth advisor for the National Network for Youth and speaks at conferences across the country.

This fall, the ABA kicked off a campaign asking lawyers, firms, and other legal professionals to “adopt a shelter” and visit monthly to provide legal assistance. A Pro Bono Primer and detailed tool kits are available on the ABA’s website to prepare volunteers for the unique legal issues that this population faces. The Legal Needs of Homeless Youth Initiative was also a focus during the National Celebration of Pro Bono (October 22–28, 2017), when thousands of US lawyers mobilized to provide volunteer services to our country’s most vulnerable residents.

Internationally, the ABA convened the International Summit on the Legal Rights of Street-Connected Children and Youth in São Paulo, Brazil (November 28–29, 2017), with more than 100 international academics, advocates, funders, lawyers, providers, and government officials in attendance. Participants are producing the first comprehensive plan from the world’s experts on addressing the legal issues detailed in the United Nations General Comment on Children in Street Situations. The U.N. General Comment lays out governments’ obligations to street-connected youth under the U.N. 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, which details the civil, political, economic, social, health, and cultural rights of children worldwide.

The principles adopted in São Paulo will help guide governments to develop comprehensive strategies on street-connected youth that put children first. These legal community initiatives will help make a difference for homeless youth and improve the world for all of us. Visit the Legal Needs of Homeless Youth Initiative webpage to learn more about this project, including how to volunteer.


Hilarie Bass

Hilarie Bass was the 2017–2018 American Bar Association president.