It’s time to address the “invisible” problem of youth homelessness

Photo by Cooper Neill

Last month, our organizations — Texas Appleseed and Texas Network of Youth Services (TNOYS) — released the most comprehensive study to date of youth homelessness in Texas. It’s based on extensive data analysis and nearly 200 interviews — with young people who have experienced homelessness, service providers, school personnel, law enforcement officials, foster care system representatives and others.

The study revealed that youth homelessness is a serious problem in Texas, affecting urban and rural communities alike. It also revealed that the state’s failure to prevent youth homelessness or aid those experiencing homelessness often leads to unnecessary and costly consequences, including academic failure and dropout, criminal or juvenile justice system involvement, foster care involvement and physical and mental health challenges.

If youth homelessness is such a serious, far-reaching and costly problem, why haven’t there been better efforts to address it? One key reason these young people are overlooked is that they tend to hide in the shadows, leaving many with the misperception that youth homelessness isn’t a problem in their community.

A national study by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago released the same day as ours shares startling statistics that show just how common the problem is: It affects 1 in 30 children aged 13 to 17, and 1 in 10 youth aged 18 to 24. In Texas, this translates to over 60,000 unaccompanied and homeless 13- to 17-year-old children and almost 300,000 young adults. But young people often don’t reveal themselves as homeless because of the stigma or of a fear of being pulled into foster care or returned to abusive home environments.

This under-identification is exacerbated by the absence of a central definition of homeless youth among the various agencies and organizations that serve them. For example, a youth who has fled an abusive home might be considered a “runaway” by law enforcement and treated as an offender, while the child welfare system might consider him or her a victim of abuse in need of protection. A “couch surfing” teen may not meet the definition of homeless that local service providers are required to use, but will be entitled to federal protections at school. This disjointed approach results in disjointed services that don’t adequately meet the needs of these young people.

Texas is working hard to understand the issue, passing legislation in 2015 that mandated the “Youth Count Texas!” study TNOYS coordinated last year. Yet no state agency in Texas is charged with coordinating services for young people who are homeless or at risk, and the Legislature does not appropriate state funding specifically for services for these youth. While we applaud efforts by state leaders to better understand this issue, it is time to act: Studies have armed us with the knowledge to effectively tackle this problem.

Our report draws on our research and that of other experts to outline a robust set of recommendations for state leaders to consider. First and foremost, Texas should create a statewide task force specifically charged with identifying policy changes to help prevent youth homelessness, and lay out funding strategies and opportunities to support a full continuum of quality services for these youths.

It is also time for the Texas Legislature to dedicate money to services for youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. Nonprofit organizations across Texas are using best and innovative practices to prevent and end youth homelessness, but they are struggling without state support and their services cannot meet demand. And while every school district in the state is required to have a homeless liaison — many of whom are doing heroic work on the frontlines — only about 10 percent of Texas’ school districts receive funding to support their work.

We know Texas can find solutions, and we look forward to working with policymakers to put those solutions in place. No child should be alone and without shelter; homelessness is no way to launch a young person into adulthood.

Disclosure: Deborah Fowler and Texas Appleseed have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Deborah Fowler

Executive director, Texas Appleseed

Christine Gendron

Executive director, Texas Network of Youth Services