12/03/2013 - Youth Homelessness: Often Invisible and Rarely Prioritized

By Darla Bardine, Policy Director, National Network for Youth

Roughly 550,000 youth in America are homeless for more than a week every year with estimates of 1.68 millio

n youth experiencing a day or more of homelessness every year. These numbers are rough because there has never been a national study of youth homelessness in America, despite the fact that this issue plagues many communities in the United States. Youth are defined as young people 12 to 24 years of age. 

It is difficult for most people to understand how a young person—defined as being 12 to 24 years of age—becomes homeless. There are a variety of reasons, but the most common cause is severe family conflict, including physical violence, sexual abuse, chronic neglect, and abandonment. Youth also become homeless when their families force them to leave their home due to pregnancy, non-acceptance of sexual orientation or gender identity, drug or alcohol use or to reduce family size due to a lack of resources.

Youth homelessness also reflects the deficits in public systems of care, such as child welfare, juvenile justice, and child mental health systems. In 2012, over 23,000 youth emancipated from foster care, and every year 14,000 to 12,000 foster youth go missing and approximately 100,000 minors exit the juvenile justice system. Youth exit these systems with little or no financial stability, community support, or housing.

Youth homelessness is often invisible. As is the suffering and exploitation that go along with being homeless. When most people think of a homeless person they picture someone on the street looking unclean and holding a sign asking for money. This is not what most youth experiencing homelessness look like. Most young people do not want anyone to know they are homeless and work hard to look like a typical adolescent, which is what they long to be. In an effort to stay safe during the day, if they are not in school, they hang out in public libraries, laundromats or with other youth on the streets. 

Youth who find themselves alone and without a home, often “couch surf,” sleeping on a friend or acquaintance’s couch, usually for just a few nights. Couch surfing is dangerous because it makes the young person even more vulnerable to physical abuse and sexual assault. If they aren’t couch surfing, youth may seek out a bed at a shelter. But far too often, a lack of resources forces youth shelters to use a lottery system to determine who gets a place to sleep each night, leaving the young person’s safety up to chance.

And these youth are already in great danger. They are at great risk for human trafficking, exploitation, victimization, untreated health and mental health care needs, chemical or alcohol dependency, criminal justice involvement and death. Runaway and homeless youth are targeted by and vulnerable to those who want to harm and exploit them because they are unprotected, abandoned and longing for someone to love them. Within 48 hours of being on the streets and homeless, an adolescent is likely to be approached by someone that wants to sexually exploit them. This sexual exploitation is a form of human trafficking. These young people are exploited in ways most people cannot begin to imagine or understand.

The good news is that there are steps communities can take to address this crisis. The National Network for Youth’s Comprehensive Framework to End Youth Homelessness, and the USICH Framework for Ending Youth Homelessness are two tools communities can use to create a functioning safety net to prevent and appropriately respond to youth homelessness.

In addition, Congress has worked in a bipartisan manner to improve the safety net for these vulnerable youth. On November 20, 2013, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) introduced a joint resolution in the Senate in support of National Runaway Prevention Month to raise awareness about youth living on the streets in America and the many challenges they face. We at the National Network for Youth (NN4Y) hope that this bipartisan leadership will continue.

Since 1974, NN4Y, a nonprofit organization, has represented homeless youth programs, government agencies, advocates, and allies who work in the trenches to provide services for runaway, homeless, and other at-risk youth. To learn more about our work, visit

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