An Examination of Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Populations

In 2010, then President Barrack Obama began the implementation of a an ambitious plan to end youth homelessness by the year 2020. However, with the recent change in the leadership of the executive branch, homelessness has come under attack once again, with this change in leadership threatening to unravel not only changes in policy, but also a cultural movement that sought to make youth homelessness a social issue of the past, the particularly vulnerable unaccompanied homeless youth population whose identities often overlap with another targeted social group, LGBTQ populations, are at great risk of having their hopes turn to sinking sand.

Lack of accommodations for the homeless is one way that unaccompanied homeless youth are especially disadvantaged even among the larger homeless population. While 6 percent of homeless people are between 18-24 years old, “Less than 3% of shelter beds are designated for ages 18-24 years old,” states Amanda Settler of Covenant House California Los Angeles branch.

The problem is made even more concerning as unaccompanied youth homelessness is largely cultural as indicated by 40% of those served at the CHC, identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ).

    Youth Homelessness: A Look at the Numbers 

    Youth homelessness is both a micro and macro issue with problems that must be addressed both on the large-scale as well as on the individual level. As policies often overlap with politics, it is important to understand the numbers of unaccompanied youth populations in respect to other homeless youth populations and understand the trends that seek to define a population that for much of society remains shrouded in misunderstandings. 

      Photo Credit: US Department of Housing and Urban Development

      The overwhelming majority, 89 percent, of unaccompanied homeless youth are 18-24 years old.  Annually, 25,000 people will age out of the US foster care system, according to a study by the US Department of Housing and Development20% of those youth will instantly become homeless. That equates to an additional 4,600 new 18-24 year old homeless youth, according to the National Foster Youth Institute.

      Photo Credit: US Department of Housing and Urban Development

      The percentage of homeless youth under 18 and homeless youth between 18-24 years old decreased from 2015-2016 at a rate of four times faster than all other homeless people.

      Photo Credit: US Department of Housing and Urban Development

      The vast majority of homeless youth under 18 are members of families and are NOT classified as homeless individuals. The vast majority of 18 to 24-year-olds are not considered to be children in families or parents and are therefore considered to be homeless individuals. The percentage of unaccompanied homeless youth under 18 years old, without adjoining families, decreased by three times as much as the percentage of youth with adjoining families from 2015-2016. The percentage of homeless youth 18-24 decreased at about half the rate of those with adjoining families from 2015-2016. 

      Photo Credits: National Alliance to End Homelessness

      Housing for accompanied homeless youth makes up less than 1 percent of housing beds, despite homeless youth comprising 6.5 percent of the homeless population. Consequently, unaccompanied homeless youth are left without housing even at the homeless shelters that stand as their last resort.

      Photo Credit: US Department of Housing and Urban Development

      Homeless youth both 18-24 and under 18 are 4 percent more likely than homeless individuals and 43 percent more likely than all homeless people to not have living accommodations.

      LGBTQ individuals comprise about 30 percent of the unaccompanied homeless youth population, with 69 percent of these individuals becoming homeless in part or wholly due to social and family complications directly tied to their sexuality or gender expression. 

      Overly Represented LGBTQ Populations

      Overly Represented LGBTQ Populations

      Not only do LGBTQ populations represent a substantial proportion of unaccompanied homeless youth, they also represent a disproportionate number of visitors to drop-in centers. This is largely due to the difficulty in finding housing programs that provide safe and affirming living environments for LGBTQ youth who are burdened not only by their homelessness but also by social stigma that pervades both the homeless and non-homeless societies upon which they are dependent.

      Photo Credit: Williams Insitute


      The Two Pathways to LGBTQ Youth Homelessness

      LGBTQ Stunted Development: A Factor in Youth Homelessness

      Intersectional Identities: A Double Whammy

      Additional Complications to Finding Shelter Placements

      Limited Job Options: Sex Work and Human Trafficking

      Ostracism and abandonment is a regular occurrence in the coming out process and affects those who come from families with financial means as well as those from economically disadvantaged groups. Prince Mavendra, the only publicly out gay prince of India, has utilized his platform to speak about discrimination towards LGBTQ individuals in hopes of drawing attention to the long-term ramifications that family ostracism and abandonment can have. Like many who influence the conversation around homelessness and stigma, he is from a privileged group that allows him to speak for those whose voices are ignored and comparatively–tiny.  Yet, his inclusion in the larger social movement that demonizes LGBTQ people and places them in position of being less than human is a stigma applied not only do LGBTQ individuals but all homeless individuals.

      Prince Mavendra Singh Gohil’s Experience with Family Ostracism Due To Being Gay

      Photo Credit: Jeremy Bamidele

      “My effigies were burned by the public and the royal families and a lot of people they decided that my coming out has created a big humiliation and shame to the people of the country, and I should be barred from attending social functions, and I was disinherited from my family, and I was disowned by my family.”

      A Timeline of Laws Affecting Homeless Youth

      2010 and 2015’s Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness

      One of the four goals of the strategic plan is to eliminate youth homelessness by 2020. “Almost 36,000 people under the age of 25 were homeless on their own rather than as part of a family in January 2016. Nearly all (32,000 or 89%) were youth between the ages of 18 and 24 were homeless by themselves, as were about 3,800 youth under the age of 18,” states a 2016 study by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

      The Public Health Model

      Like most social problems, homelessness has become theoretical in nature with many outside the community seeking to draw larger social attention and relevance through the use of models. The public health model has been adopted by key homelessness theorists, including Pawson, Culhane, Burt, and Shinn.The It derives from the Textbook of Preventative Medicine that originally created in 1940 to address public health. It was quickly adapted to address social issues including homelessness. The text outlined three separate frameworks for identifying different chronic health prevention programs and intended outcomes.

      The first of the frameworks dealt with delineating stages in which intervention could occur. It addressed three forms of prevention:

        1. Primary: Primary prevention dealt with addressing entire populations health as to reduce the development of chronic health conditions. 
        2. Secondary: Secondary prevention dealt with treating those with already existing health conditions. This form of prevention is usually administered during an emergency response. 
        3. TeTertiaryTertiary prevention is when medical officials help those with longer-term conditions to cope over long durations.

      While these three forms of prevention helped to better organize the time and investment of resources in each stage of treatment, in order to be implemented they relied on prevention identification methods.

      The textbook outlined three ways of identifying populations for treatment:

        1. Universal: Programs that target the entire population
        2. Selected: Programs that target statistically more at risk groups
        3. Indicated: Programs that target those that possess individual characteristics that made them more prone to certain diseases (Indicated prevention requires medical screens to identify personal differences held within a population)

      Lastly, the text outlined a third framework consisting of separating treatment programs into general population focused and high-risk population focused. This framework seeks to identify the structural causes of disease and is one of the most adapted frameworks to addressing issues of homelessness.

      The Positive Youth Development Framework

      The Positive Youth Development Framework,  published in 2005 by Karen Pittman, is encapsulated by her catchphrase “Problem Free is Not Fully Prepared.” Rather than exclusively focus on fixing societal problems, Pittman’s framework advocates for the broadening of the way potential causes to homelessness are addressed. The Positive Youth Development Framework builds on the Public Health Model by expanding its goal to help youth develop their full potential instead of viewing the lack of problems as an indicator of success. She outlines 3 goals:


      1. Solving Young People’s Problems
      2. Preparing Them for Adulthood
      3. Helping Them Get Involved
        Deeply embedded in the Positive Youth Development Framework is the belief that engagement with organizations will decrease problematic behavior, increase skills, and develop citizenry. It asserts that youth involvement is not only beneficial to youth involved but can also increase key performance indicators in the organizations that they work at. It advocates for increased decision-making for youth in organizations and asserts that youth do not live in programs but rather live in social structures of which organizations are a part.

      Photo Credit: Preventing Problems, Promoting Development, Encouraging Engagement

      The Positive Youth Development Framework breaks down 3 success levels: problem-free, fully prepared, and fully engaged into five categories:

      1. Cognitive
      2. Vocational
      3. Physical
      4. Social/Emotional
      5. Civic

      Problem-free is placed as the minimal level of youth attainment with fully engaged being the highest level of attainment. At the fully engaged level, youth engage in peer tutoring and school decision making, entrepreneurship, safe sex campaigning, sports, social clubs, and are politically engaged.

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