Ahead of Congressional Reauthorization, New Study Shows Greater Reform is Needed in Runaway and Homeless Youth Act

In-depth interviews highlight the causes and conditions of housing instability

Dr. Gina Samuels, right, presents findings at a pre-release event in Washington, DC.

CHICAGO, IL – June 5, 2019 A new study by Chapin Hall identifies the diverse range of causes that lead more than 4.1 million young people to experience homelessness each year. Based on interviews with 215 youth ages 13-25 from across the country, Missed Opportunities in Youth Pathways Through Homelessness shows where larger changes are needed in the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act—which is up for reauthorization by Congress this year—to improve the prevention of and response to youth homelessness federally.

The report offers an unprecedented look into causes of America’s youth homelessness crisis, weaving together narratives from young people who have slept on the streets, lived in shelters, ran away from home, were kicked out of their homes, or were couch surfing. Although each young person’s pathway to homelessness is unique, the researchers found four common experiences among those surveyed:

  1. Young people link homelessness to earlier disruptions of family and home, including family homelessness and entrance to foster care; over 40 percent of the youth had been in foster care, and nearly a quarter were homeless with their families at some time.
  2. Youth pathways through homelessness are characterized by significant personal losses; 35 percent of youth experienced the death of at least one parent or primary caregiver.
  3. Many external factors – including systems and communities, families, and peers – shape how young people experience homelessness.
  4. Youths’ pathways to homelessness reflect frequent moves (within city/town, county, state or nation) and fluidity in sleeping arrangements (shelters, couch surfing, streets, etc.)

The youth interviewed represent a wide swath of the population from rural and urban counties including Cook County, Illinois; Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania; Travis County, Texas; San Diego County, California; and Walla Walla County, Washington.

“The interviews in this report provide invaluable insight into how and why young people fall into homelessness,” said Bryan Samuels, executive director of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. “The vast majority of the young people we surveyed had experienced trauma and instability at a young age, whether it was entering the foster care system or losing a parent. The results reveal clear moments when child welfare officials and social services agencies can intervene to prevent youth homelessness from happening in the first place.”

Among other recommendations for strengthening the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, Chapin Hall suggests that Congress address family-based trauma experienced by youth experiencing homelessness, including youth facing stigma and discrimination from family members. It also recommends that policy should match the mobility of the homeless experience, recognize the intersections with the child welfare and criminal justice systems, and use social media channels to communicate about services and improve coordination among service providers.

“Youth with lived experience of homelessness are a critical source of information about how to address this crisis,” said Dr. Gina Samuels, the lead author of the study. “We learned from them that their housing instability starts when they are young, and under specific conditions – such as earlier disruptions of home and stability due to family conflict or entering foster care. With that knowledge, we now know when and where we have to do more to intervene.”

Two peer-reviewed journals also published articles on this research. Navigating Housing Instability and Substance Use: Hidden Tensions Facing Youth In Small Town America was published in the Journal of Social Service Research. Nothing is for Free: Youth Logics of Engaging Resources While Unstably Housed was published in Cityscape.

This report is the sixth in a series of research briefs on youth experiencing homelessness in America. The previous briefs covered other critical findings from the Voices of Youth national study:

Background information about Voices of Youth Count

Voices of Youth Count is made possible through a grant from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (Office of Policy Development and Research) and support from other funders including Chapin Hall, Arcus Foundation, Ballmer Group Philanthropy, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, Casey Family Programs, Dr. Inger Davis, Elton John AIDS Foundation, Liberty Mutual, Melville Charitable Trust, and Raikes Foundation. Chapin Hall is solely responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations in Voices of Youth Count publications. Such statements and interpretations do not necessarily reflect the views of the government or any of Chapin Hall’s other partners.

Background information about Chapin Hall

Chapin Hall is an independent policy research center at the University of Chicago focused on providing public and private decision-makers with rigorous research and achievable solutions to support them in improving the lives of children, families and communities. Chapin Hall partners with policymakers, practitioners, and philanthropists at the forefront of research and policy development by applying a unique blend of scientific research, real-world experience, and policy expertise to create solutions for improving the lives of children, youth, and families.