Ending Youth Homelessness: A Call to Action Forty Years in the Making

Happy young people.

By William H. Bentley, Associate Commissioner of the Family & Youth Services Bureau
& Laura Zeilinger, Executive Director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness

(This article first appeared on the Family Room blog on Sept. 30, 2014.)

Forty years ago, the U.S. government took the bold step of making the landmark Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, or RHYA, the law of the land. RHYA is the only federal law that highlights the need for and funds critical services for youth experiencing homelessness. In July 2014, Congress introduced the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act (S.2646), new legislation that, if enacted, would reauthorize and strengthen RHYA. With continued funding for street outreach, basic center and transitional living programs, RYHA provides critical services and support to runaway and homeless youth and plays an important role in the effort end youth homelessness by 2020, a goal set in Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.

But one program is not enough to end homelessness. RHYA is one important piece of a much larger coordinated response to youth homelessness. Youth homelessness is a complex issue that often has deep roots in family conflict, poverty and trauma, and to solve it means figuring out ways to deliver services that are coordinated, effective, and comprehensive.

The key is collaboration. We know that when youth service providers and public systems at every level are collaborating, engaging in productive discussion about what is most effective, and figuring out how to be nimble enough to adapt to the needs of youth, we are more likely to see positive results.

The effort needed to truly end youth homelessness is large. But we owe it to our nation’s young people and to the futures of our communities to build on the successes of RHYA. This is a call to action for all partners and stakeholders in this work to join us and get involved in implementing a systems- and youth-centric approach to ending youth homelessness.

Framework for Action

RHYA set the foundation for making opportunities for safety, growth and development available to youth everywhere. It highlights the role of communities in being part of a unified system response, one made up of a dynamic, resilient, adaptable series of relationships and linkages between resources focused on a common purpose: ending youth homelessness. Our young people deserve actions that will make a real and lasting impact in their lives. Through Opening Doors, federal partners are building a comprehensive strategy that recognizes ending homelessness takes housing, health, education and employment, crisis response, and leadership and collaboration.

The Federal Framework to End Youth Homelessness guides federal action to end youth homelessness. The Framework unifies efforts across agencies and grounds the work in contributing to measureable progress on four core outcomes for youth: housing stability, permanent connections, education and employment, and well-being.

To transition from homelessness to safe and stable housing, youth need permanent connections with caring and supportive adults. Youth need opportunities to reconnect with family and repair relationships (if doing so is safe and appropriate for that young person). They need education and employment services and supports. They need programs that promote their social-emotional well-being and deal with issues such as trauma, depression and substance abuse, that have been found to be common among youth experiencing homelessness. An overarching commitment to impacting these four core outcomes guides every aspect of our work.

To help improve these outcomes for youth, the Framework focuses on two core strategies:

  1. Improving data quality and collection on the prevalence and characteristics of youth experiencing homelessness while simultaneously
  2. Building capacity of federal, state and local systems to act effectively and efficiently toward ending youth homelessness

Improved data on youth is essential to helping us set benchmarks and track progress in addressing youth homelessness. 

Federal partners are working to improve point-in-time counts of people experiencing homelessness and data collection by federally funded programs, included runaway and homeless youth programs. Communities are part of this effort which includes private funders, federal agencies and partnerships with advocates.

Building capacity involves improving the way we use screening and assessment tools to understand the needs of youth and provide linkages to appropriate services. It also necessitates a clearer articulation of effective services and interventions, which can be derived from drawing on a growing list of evidence-based interventions for homeless youth and highlighting practices that are most effective.

Collaboration and Coordination

To prevent and end youth homelessness, all stakeholders – RHYA providers, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuums of Care, local and state Medicaid offices, child welfare agencies, and juvenile justice facilities, to name but a few – need to work together as part of a coordinated and systematic response to homelessness.

Using the Framework as a guide, all stakeholders are encouraged to focus on their common purpose. Programs and agencies that serve unaccompanied youth should think about how their mission aligns with the larger, unified response to ending youth homelessness.

Together, we will reach our goal of ending homelessness among youth by 2020.

9-5 pm Eastern