More than 550,000 teens and young adults under the age of 24 experience a period of homelessness for at least one week, said ABA President Hilarie Bass, as she introduced the webinar “Burning Down the House: The Myths Around Youth Homelessness in America.”
The ABA Homeless Youth Legal Network, one of Bass' signature initiatives, offers resources for anyone wanting to help this population. It provides “a real opportunity for lawyers across this nation to extend a hand and really change the trajectory of these children’s lives,” Bass said. “What this project is attempting to do is pair lawyers, law firms, bar associations and in-house counsel with homeless youth shelters and drop-in centers across the country and commit time to helping these kids.”
The panelists explained how the problems experienced by homeless youth are many and varied.
Family conflict is often at the root of why young people find themselves on the streets, though poverty is usually a contributing factor, said panelist Eve Allegra Stotland, director of legal services for The Door in New York. Young people of color and LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the homeless population, and for them, coping with homelessness is often viewed as normal.
Racial injustice and global migration are also to blame. The number of displaced persons and refugees is the highest since World War II, Stotland said. People are fleeing dangerous situations all around the world and when young people come to this country on their own as unaccompanied minors, they face an uphill battle to find work and a place to live. Lack of affordable housing is a contributing factor, as even a full-time job will not cover rent costs in most urban areas. Many homeless youths are orphans, having been cared for by a grandparent, who subsequently died.
The definition of homelessness varies state to state and even among government agencies, which impacts how accessible government services can be, said panelist Casey Trupin, a program officer in Youth Homelessness at the Raikes Foundation in Seattle.
When it comes to helping homeless youths, the first challenge is to find them. “They’re hiding from the system, and for their own safety,” said panelist Gabrielle Christine McDonald, director of Pro Bono & New Projects for Texas Appleseed in Austin. This doesn’t mean they’re hiding under a bridge or in the woods, but are often couch-surfing, living with friends. Part of their mistrust of authority figures stems from past interaction with foster care or police. But many homeless kids will show up at schools, where they might be noticed by an observant and caring teacher who recognizes the signs of homelessness, such as poor hygiene or lack of necessary supplies.
Homeless youth are sometimes targeted by law enforcement simply because they have no home, and are detained for sleeping in a park, for example. Some are young adults who have aged out of foster care and have nowhere to go, Stotland said. She said that when a child is taken out of their community for any reason, their ties to the community are weakened and they become vulnerable to being stopped by police for status offenses. A status offense is a noncriminal act that is considered a legal violation only because of a youth’s status as a minor. Typical status offenses include truancy, running away from home, violating curfew, underage use of alcohol and general ungovernability. Once they are introduced to the criminal justice system, they often become more fearful of interactions with authorities.
“Truancy is a common status offense, said panelist Courtney Smith, a youth advisor in Detroit at the National Network for Youth. When a kid misses a lot of school, which is common in the homeless population, in some areas of the country they can go to jail. Violating curfew laws is another way homeless kids enter the criminal justice system. Some shopping malls have curfews, and homeless kids who frequent malls for shelter can end up in juvenile court.
“Nearly 44 percent of homeless youth have stayed in a jail, prison or juvenile detention center,” Trupin said, adding that nearly 78 percent have had at least one interaction with the police. Because they’re living on the street, vulnerable homeless youths often report being threatened with weapons, robbed or assaulted.
There are plenty of ways that youths experiencing homelessness come in contact with the criminal justice system, but many people may wonder why they need more assistance than the services of a public defender.
“The criminal justice system is complicated,” Stotland said. “These are young people who are sleep-deprived, trying to figure out where to go.” Even with no background in criminal justice, there are basic things a volunteer lawyer can do to help a young person facing these criminalization issues. Many kids living on the street aren’t aware if they have an outstanding warrant or been issued a ticket, as it might’ve been lost or gotten wet and became illegible.
If they have had a court proceeding, maybe the public defender neglected to give them a business card or they lost it. A lawyer or law student can help by calling the local public defender’s office to find out about a pending court date or warrants, and arrange for surrender. Lawyers also can help homeless youth engage with case managers to access public benefits.
Bass urged interested legal professionals to visit the ABA website to learn more about the program. “We’ve got all the information you’ll need. We’re very excited about this project … and we think we’ll make a difference in this population in the next year, but that can only happen with your help.”