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Federal Government Must Address Youth Homelessness As Public Health Problem: Chapin Hall

youth homelessness: lonely person with hoodie and backpack staying on bench in city park with snow

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To end youth homelessness, the federal government must go beyond a crisis response to the problem and take a comprehensive approach that addresses its underlying causes and supports long-term housing stability.

That’s the conclusion of a new report released today by Chapin Hall, an independent research center at the University of Chicago that studies youth homelessness and other issues related to children and families.

“A public health approach is critical to ensuring we are addressing current needs and preventing future experiences of youth homelessness,” the report says.

Though targeted at the federal government, the report is also intended as a guide for state and local officials, funders, advocates and activists. 

“It’s a road map for action,” said Matthew Morton, a research fellow at Chapin Hall. “We know that ending youth homelessness is not something the federal government can do alone.” 

The report lays out 63 steps the federal legislative and executive branches can take to make youth homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring. The recommendations are aimed at Congress and federal agencies, including the U.S. departments of Education, Labor, Justice, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services.

The federal government has largely addressed youth homelessness with funding for programs serving people who are experiencing homelessness or have recently experienced it, such as through street outreach, shelters and transitional housing, counseling and clinical interventions, researchers said. 

Such crisis response programs are necessary — but not sufficient — to solve the problem, according to Beth Horwitz, a senior policy analyst at Chapin Hall. “It’s not the wrong approach; it’s just that it’s just not enough,” she said.

In addition to crisis response programs, the report calls on the government to: 

  • Address the underlying causes of youth homelessness, such as racism, poverty and inequality;
  • Change the cultural context in which it occurs, such as through more affordable housing; screening and supports for youth leaving juvenile justice and child welfare systems; and providing families with the tools to navigate conflict; 
  • Support long-lasting “protective” interventions to prevent recurrences and minimize adverse effects; 
  • Provide youth with training programs so they can achieve long-term housing stability, such as through programs that help them get careers — not just jobs; and 
  • Fund more research into the problem and solutions to it.

The report also addresses cross-cutting issues, such as racial and ethnic disparities, that require a multisector response.

Steps federal government can take

Called “Research to Impact: Federal Actions to Prevent & End Youth Homelessness,” the report is the latest in a series of reports by Chapin Hall.

It is grounded in the findings of Voices of Youth Count, a comprehensive research initiative designed in response to the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act that calls for more and better data on youth homelessness. It also reflects policy ideas generated at a convening last fall of federal officials, researchers, advocates, funders, young leaders and others.

The report comes as Congress moves ahead with a formal impeachment inquiry — a process that is inflaming partisan tensions and will likely tie up legislative action in the near term. 

But that doesn’t mean the federal government can’t – or won’t – take steps outlined in the report soon, Morton said. “We think there is a lot of material here that the federal government can and will act on.”

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness — an independent agency within the executive branch — plans to discuss the report’s recommendations during its strategic planning process for the upcoming fiscal year, spokeswoman Jennifer Rich said. She couldn’t talk about additional actions because their working group on youth homelessness hasn’t yet deliberated on the recommendations.

Youth homelessness is a broad and hidden scourge that must be treated like other public health problems, such as obesity and HIV/AIDS, researchers said.

About one in 30 teens between 13 and 17 and one in 10 young adults between 18 and 25 have experienced some form of homelessness during a 12-month period, whether it be living on the streets or coach-surfing at friends’ homes.

Even short periods of homelessness can interfere with healthy adolescent development, as it puts youth at risk of mental and physical health problems, violence, early pregnancy, substance use, dropping out of school and early death. Risk factors for becoming homeless include family instability, coming out as LGBTQ, dropping out of school and involvement with the justice and foster care systems.

“Failing to address the needs of youth and support their healthy development leads to further disparities in adulthood and undermines the nation’s growth and competitiveness,” the report states. “These missed opportunities make us all lose out.”

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