Experts Address the Legal Problems Surrounding Homeless Youth Services

“We believe we can think through and urge a system that keeps young people safe,” said Deborah Shore, founder and executive director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork (SBY), at last week’s Alone without a Home: A State-by-State Review of Laws Affecting Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Webinar.

The event, coordinated by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) and the National Network for Youth (NN4Y), also featured  commentary from Eric Tars, director of the NLCHP’s Human Rights and Children’s Rights Programs and Celia Cruz, a former homeless youth.

According to Shore, conditions for unaccompanied homeless youth are made worse by a number of legal factors, including an inability to obtain basic necessities, an elevated risk of involvement with the justice system and a general lack of wrap-around services.

“What happens in local areas,” she said, “depends upon the support of, or the barriers that exist, within the legal system.”

To improve conditions for runaway and homeless youth, Shore said that an emphasis should be placed on meeting the basic shelter and living needs of unaccompanied juveniles while increasing street outreach efforts. She also believes that additional efforts to improve long-term housing alternatives and independent living programs are vital in reducing the number of homeless, unaccompanied minors in the United States.

She said that approximately 1.6 million unaccompanied youth are currently living on the streets of America, adding that about 43 percent of them report being beaten at home while a quarter report having been asked to engage in sexual acts with their caretakers. Shore said that there is a “large overrepresentation” of LGBT teens on the streets, and adds that a “depressed economy” has driven the total number of homeless youth upward. Other populations at risk for homelessness, she said, include youth aging out foster care and juvenile justice systems, refugees and commercially sexually-exploited juveniles. 

According to Shore, the key to solving some of the long-term problems of homeless youth rests in improving coordination efforts between agencies. She encourages a more “systematic way” of looking at services and would like to see more merged efforts aimed at persons-in-need-of supervision (PINS), particularly regarding prevention services.

“These limitation that exist, not [having] enough services, are huge,” she said. “The need is to strengthen what we have, to build, certainly, more services.”

Tars said one of the persistent legal problems of homeless youth revolves around statutory definitions of “youth,” which fluctuate from state to state. He also said that discrepancies in the definition of “youth” and “juvenile” frequently create legal difficulties, adding that in many states, judgmental terms like “delinquent” and “transient” are still used to legally describe runaway and homeless youth.

Tars said that Ohio and New Jersey have among the best practices in place regarding the legal usage of the terms “youth,” with New Jersey declaring a youth to be anyone “21 years or younger,” while Ohio statutes declare a runaway to be “any child separated from a parent.” He also commended several states that elect to use the more expansive McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act definition of “homeless” as opposed to the more frequently used Housing and Urban Development (HUD) standards.

“50 jurisdictions authorize police to take runaway youth into custody,” Tars stated. In 39 jurisdictions, he said that states have authorized restrictive curfews for youths, while truancy remains a status offense in 9 jurisdictions. He praised both Indiana – which does not have a minimum emancipation age and does not require parental consent for youths to obtain emancipation rights – and Missouri – which allots “right of contract” privileges for unaccompanied youth, pending parental consent – for their legal statutes, which he described as among the nation’s best regarding unaccompanied and emancipated teens.

In 34 jurisdictions, Tars said that unaccompanied youth were allowed to apply for health insurance coverage without parental consent, while 15 states require an adult or guardian to consent. Tars said that Idaho, which has no age limit for consent and specifically allows minors 14 years or older to consent to treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and substance abuse, to have perhaps the country’s best health coverage policies in place for homeless youth.

Tars said that right to education and juvenile justice discharges remain problematic areas for homeless juveniles, adding that only 10 states explicitly authorize the expenditure of funds for programs and services targeted to runaway and homeless youth. He concluded by praising Wyoming and Alaska for providing certain exemptions to anti-harboring liabilities for adults that take in homeless juveniles, and encouraged states to ensure “the rights and dignity of youth” by extending eligibility for federal and state benefits to unaccompanied youth and emancipated juveniles. 


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