Bright Idea: An Online Guide to Laws That Affect Homeless Youth

Photograph of a young woman sitting outside next to a fence.

Homeless youth may not know it, but they face dozens of legal questions. Can police pick them up for running away? What public benefits, like food and health care assistance, do they qualify for? What college financial aid can they apply for? How can they order a birth certficate?


Last year, Washington State's Columbia Legal Services, Starbucks Corporation, and law firm Baker & McKenzie joined forces to help young people find the answers to those and many other questions. The result is "The Homeless Youth Handbook: Legal Issues and Options," which aims to help Washington's homeless youth find safety and stability and understand their legal rights. The handbook's 18 chapters cover topics ranging from education, health care and housing to consumer and credit issues.

We interviewed Angela Vigil, a partner at Baker & McKenzie and the firm's director of pro bono and community service, about how the handbook was developed and ways other communities can put together a similar legal guide for young people experiencing homelessness.

NCFY: Who is the intended audience for the handbook?

Angela Vigil: It's definitely for both youth and youth-serving agencies. What we have learned from working with Columbia Legal Services and what CLS has learned from working with youth is that youth will use the electronic version way more than the hard copy. Were happy about that because the electronic version can be edited and updated all the time. In fact, it already has been because there has been a legislative session since we released the handbook in 2013.

NCFY: What can other communities do to develop a similar partnership and handbook?

Vigil: We are open to suggestions and requests from other states and communities on helping homeless youth and would love to hear from them and help them to develop handbooks. The nuances of the law are different in each state, and only people working directly in the field would be aware of those nuances. We would want to be writing the handbook with someone who reviewed the law and who practiced in that area on a regular basis so that it would be a reflection of people's experiences.

NCFY: What are the plans for expansion of the handbook or subsequent editions?

Vigil: We will continue to update the handbook because there will continue to be topics of interest. For example, the topic of Native American youth and how the laws affect them differently. I could envision a future chapter on Native American Youth, or we may decide to expand each chapter's content to include questions specific to Native youth. We've also thought about updates for the handbook if immigration laws change.

Baker & McKenzie welcomes inquiries from organizations and legal practitioners who want to write a legal handbook for runaway and homeless youth in their communities. Contact Angela Vigil if you are interested.

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