An Examination of Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Populations

The number of homeless persons decreased by 3% from 2015-2016. However, there remains much to be done about combatting the issue of unaccompanied youth homelessness. For example, 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).

This article will take a numbers approach to examining the sub-communities that comprise homeless youth. This information can be used to identify different growth patterns that may indicate the differing effects of policies and laws on subgroups.

This article is broken up into four main sections that look at:

    1. The classifications and growth patterns of homeless youth, with a focus on unaccompanied homeless youth.
    2. The overrepresentation of LGBTQ persons in the homeless youth community
    3. The history of laws that affect homeless youth
    4. The Policies that affect homeless youth

Youth Homelessness: A Look at the Numbers 

Homelessness is a pervasive and complicated issue that can only be properly addressed with a thorough system of classification. The classifications addressed will be accompanied with tables that flow from general to more specific with insights following each.

For the purpose of this section, we will be looking at a total of 12 non-overlapping classifications of homeless persons. They will be grouped by a combination of age, family status, and shelter status. 

Classifications Focused On:

    • Under 18 l Unaccompanied l Unsheltered
    • 18-24 l Unaccompanied l Unsheltered
    • Under 18 l Unaccompanied l Sheltered
    • 18-24 l Unaccompanied l Sheltered

Group By Age:

    • Homeless Youth Under 18 years old
    • Homeless Youth from 18-24 years old
    • Homeless Persons of 25 years old

Group By Family Status:

    • Accompanied: part of a family structure
    • Unaccompanied/Individual: not part of a family structure

Group By Shelter Status

    • Sheltered: living in a temporary government or socially provided housing arrangement
    • Unsheltered: not living in a temporary government or socially provided housing arrangement

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.

Overly Represented LGBTQ Populations

Overly Represented LGBTQ Populations

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

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

Policies and Thinking Frameworks Affecting Homeless Youth

Youth homelessness is a social issue that has been addressed by policy initiatives and academic research. This section will address: the most recent plan to eliminate homelessness by 2020, the thinking framework that has dominated research on homeless youth in the recent past, and the current thinking framework dominating research on homeless youth

    1. The most recent plan to eliminate homelessness (2010 and 2015’s Opening Doors…)
    2. The thinking framework that has dominated research on homeless youth in the recent past and the current thinking framework dominating research on homeless youth (The Public Health Model)
    3. The current thinking framework dominating research on homeless youth (The Positive Youth Development Framework)

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

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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