Youth Homelessness

Last Updated Sep 28, 2023

This guide is intended to help donors gain a deeper understanding of the U.S. housing system and outlines opportunities to address the root causes of homelessness. By Clarissa Coburn

Did you know?

What Is Youth Homelessness?

Young homelessness refers to people ages 13-25 without safe, stable housing. In addition to young people on the streets, this includes couch surfers and people housed in shelters, cars, or hotels.

Why Should Donors Care?

Youth who are homeless are particularly vulnerable at a key time in their lives. They are more likely to suffer poor health and fall behind in their education

During the 2020-21 school year, more than 1 million public school students experienced homelessness. This represents 2.2% of all students enrolled in public schools. During the 2018-19 school year, almost 6% of high school students experienced homelessness, increasing their likelihood of missing school, which can result in higher rates of dropping out, experiencing poverty, and becoming involved in the criminal justice system. These combined challenges are long-lasting, with implications for chronic homelessness. 

Youth who are homeless are likely to experience poor mental health and high rates of physical ailments common among homeless populations: HIV and AIDS, lung disease, malnutrition, and wound and skin infections. Unaccompanied minors may not be allowed to access medical care, as they require a guardian’s consent to receive care. 

Poor health and lack of education create additional challenges for youth over time. Without a complete education, it can be more difficult to access jobs paying a livable wage, which is one reason youth homelessness is linked to adult homelessness. Preventing and addressing youth homelessness is an opportunity to stop that pathway and reduce homelessness rates overall. Programs that keep families housed and offer wraparound services to youth experiencing homelessness are crucial.

According to IRS data compiled by GC Insights* (part of Giving Compass), since 2018, youth homelessness organizations have a combined annual revenue of $61 billion. Donors can be instrumental in supporting direct services that meet the diverse needs of young people who are unhoused and advocating for policy changes that address the underlying conditions that lead to youth homelessness.

*GC Insights data is based on forms 990 filed with the IRS between 2018-present.

Who Is Affected By Youth Homelessness?

LGBTQ+ Youth

LGBTQ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than their non-LGBTQ peers. Many are kicked out of or run away from home due to lack of acceptance from their families. LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness have specific needs that services need to include in order to have the best chance of success. 

In addition to being more likely to leave (or being forced out of) their homes, LGBTQ+ individuals face other discrimination that increases the challenges they face. Homeless LGBTQ+ youth are two to four times more likely to report depression, anxiety, self-harm, considering suicide, and attempting suicide than their housed peers. 

Youth of Color

Youth of color experience homelessness at a higher rate than their white peers. Unequal access to housing and employment due to systemic racism contributes to the fact that three-fifths of homeless youth are people of color. Centering the lived experiences of people of color in youth homelessness solutions is critical to serving this disproportionately impacted group. While the following data covers national overall homelessness rates, the insights provide a look at the housing disparities affecting people of color.

It is essential to remember that intersectionality plays a role for youth of color who may also belong to other marginalized groups. Black LGBTQ+ youth are far more likely to be homeless than their peers.

Victims of Crimes

Youth are vulnerable to crimes, particularly those inflicted by members of their family or household. Abuse is often a driver of youth homelessness as young people flee their homes for their own safety. Legal services can help this group to navigate the criminal justice system, which can be as difficult for victims of crimes. 

Rural Youth

Homelessness is often considered an urban problem, but data show a significant rural homeless population. Because of fewer employment options and lower wages, this population is growing, particularly in hard-hit rural areas.

The invisibility of the rural homelessness problem leaves youth experiencing homelessness without the services they need. The dispersed nature of rural areas can make it difficult to serve the needs of homeless populations or even to identify them. Disparate homeless youth can be difficult to find and reach and it can be difficult for them to access centralized service locations. 

Youth without Education

Youth with less than a high school diploma or GED have a 346% higher risk of experiencing homelessness.

Getting an education can be a key factor in avoiding youth homelessness. Mental and physical healthcare services for students experiencing homelessness are key, as are basic services like laundry which can be a significant barrier to education for youth who are homeless. Wraparound services, which provide life essentials so youth can focus on school, can help solve some of the challenges, and partnerships between education institutions and homelessness services can help fill this gap. 

Youth with Children

Forty-four percent of homeless women ages 18 to 25 are pregnant or are parents.

Unmarried parenting youth have a 200% higher risk of becoming homeless.

The financial, mental, and physical demands of parenthood make this group vulnerable to homelessness and present extra challenges for those experiencing homelessness. While there is extensive research focused on the needs of youth with children, there are not enough resources to meet the needs of this group. 

Limitations, including expanding abortion restrictions, make it more difficult for youth to access the health services they need. Unaccompanied minors face significant barriers to medical care, including the need for parental consent. Pregnancy prevention efforts, like Colorado’s long-acting reversible contraception policy, that allow youth to determine their own reproductive future are key. Fighting legal battles to protect reproductive rights are essential. For youth who have children, services that meet their needs and the needs of their children, like Generation Hope, are needed. 

What Is Causing These Disparities?

Racism and discrimination are baked into existing policies and systems. This results in disparities across racial, gender, and sexuality lines in youth homelessness. Ensuring that new policies and practices are specifically anti-racist and LGBTQ+ inclusive is essential to building services that truly address youth homelessness. Systemic discrimination can also lead to undercounting of disproportionately impacted populations, as they are ignored or avoid officials connected with systems they distrust. Creating new, effective solutions requires the perspectives of those with the lived experience.

The State Index on Youth Homelessness details the ways in which states are - and aren’t - shifting policy to address the underlying causes of youth homelessness and meet the needs of youth experiencing homelessness. The 2022 edition revealed only seven states (Massachusetts, California, Washington, District of Columbia, Maine, Louisiana, and Connecticut) received scores that are considered passing. The Index also outlines policy changes that can help improve states’ scores. 

Poverty

Many youth enter homelessness as children, often with their families. Intergenerational homelessness is a difficult cycle to break. Homelessness in childhood interrupts education and puts these children and youth at a disadvantage. Our current political system reinforces intergenerational wealth and, therefore, intergenerational poverty. Policies that are designed to address inequalities, create affordable housing, and improve access to employment opportunities can help put families on a more positive trajectory.

Unsafe and Unwelcoming Homes

The vast majority of homeless youth report family conflict, and a quarter suffer from abuse and neglect. Unwelcoming homes are particularly common for LGBTQ+ youth. These vulnerable youth are in need of services, including emotional support and transition support. Organizations like wayOUT fund organizations providing essential services that meet the specific needs of LGBTQ+ youth that can be essential for youth to move successfully into adulthood. 

The Foster Care System

Children and youth who end up in the foster care system are not guaranteed better outcomes. Almost 40% of Washington’s incarcerated youth have experienced foster care. When youth leave prison, they are likely to become homeless. Youth who age out of foster care without finding a permanent family are more likely to experience many hardships, including homelessness, as they try to transition to adulthood without family support. A joint effort by Treehouse; the Department of Children, Youth & Families; and the Raikes Foundation aims to prevent this pathway to homelessness by addressing shortcomings in the foster care system. 

Juvenile Justice System and Criminalization

Formerly incarcerated people are more likely to be homeless, and homelessness is a major predictor of involvement in the juvenile justice system. Criminalization – treating homelessness and related activities as criminal activity -- drives the high incarceration rates for people experiencing homelessness. As formerly incarcerated people are released, they often receive little or no support from the justice system, community, or their families. Solutions that support – rather than criminalize -- homeless youth and help formerly incarcerated people reintegrate into society can help break this damaging cycle.

Get Involved

GC Insights identified 11,043 nonprofit organizations addressing homelessness in the United States (between 2018 to the present). Fifty-nine percent of those organizations mention working on youth homelessness specifically. These nonprofits provide a variety of services, spanning housing, healthcare, career development, transportation, and much more. Forty-six nonprofits focused on youth homelessness can be found in the Giving Compass Social Justice Nonprofit directory. These organizations, which have been vetted to ensure impact-driven criteria have been met, have a combined annual revenue of $1.29 billion since 2018. Many of these organizations are already successfully serving communities, but more help is needed to help youth already experiencing homelessness and to cut off the pipeline to more youth and adult homelessness. Donors can play a role. Here’s how: 

  • My Friend’s Place offers a comprehensive continuum of services to 1,000 youth experiencing homelessness between the ages of 12 and 25, and their children, each year.
  • YMCA offers youth programs at local branches designed to prevent homelessness and support youth experiencing homelessness.
  • Public Counsel helps homeless youth who are likely to be involved in the justice system, either as victims or as the accused, navigate the judicial process.
  • Ruth Ellis Center provides short- and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless, and at-risk lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender, and questioning youth.
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