The homeless youth that come to the Youth Empowered Society drop-in center in Baltimore are not thinking about their legal needs. Food, rest, laundry, and maybe a movie are on their minds.
But although most homeless youth do not realize it, many of their day-to-day challenges do include a legal component, says Ingrid Lofgren, director of the Homeless Youth Initiative at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. An attorney by training, Lofgren regularly visits Youth Empowered Society to walk around and talk to young people using drop-in services. In doing so, she often learns that she can help youth access public benefits, investigate affordable housing, or start work on expungement proceedings.
Indeed, legal issues for youth can take many forms, including custody issues, affordable housing, fair employment and pay, or school enrollment and accessibility, says Vicki Taitano of Legal Services Corporation.
Both women agree that social service providers can play an important role in helping homeless young people understand their legal needs and available resources. Connecting those dots, however, may require some creativity.
In order to serve homeless youth more effectively, it’s important to bring legal and non-legal service providers together early, Lofgren says.
Her regular work at the drop-in center is an example of a partnership between legal professionals and an agency where homeless youth feel comfortable and routinely visit. Establishing a legal presence in a youth-serving organization can take many forms, Taitano says, including a special legal outreach night, workshops, or having a legal professional attend intake interviews.
Lofgren recommends building a network of legal providers who care about young people’s needs and specialize in different types of law, rather than just giving youth a referral to an unfamiliar organization.
To do this, service providers can reach out to legal aid organizations in their community, Taitano says. Many already have a network of connections in the community and can refer providers to specific legal experts, depending on the needs of the youth. Since one legal partner may not be able to address the range of legal issues youth face, a special referral network with specific, vetted organizations can provide youth with many options.
Legal aid organizations can also train social service providers to identify legal issues young people may not share on their own. Teaching staff the right questions to ask, Logren says, can help them spot legal concerns and suggest the appropriate resources. In turn, service providers can educate legal providers about the specific needs of homeless youth.
Other partnerships are helpful as well. Lofgren meets monthly with the Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative, an umbrella organization bringing together legal, service, and health providers to connect about recent trends in youth homelessness and young people’s needs. By participating in coalitions and connecting with other providers, organizations can build a larger network to help youth find legal solutions.
In some cases, providing access to legal services can require additional funding. Bob Bullock, senior counsel for the Office for Access to Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice, works to make sure there are different federal funding opportunities that incorporate legal aid as an eligible purpose for funding. He suggests that youth- and family-serving organizations add a legal aid organization as a sub-grantee when applying for funds, which can increase opportunities, he says.
Additionally, legal aid agencies may already have programs that organizations can use at no extra expense. Bullock and Taitano recommend starting with Legal Services Corporation, Access to Justice Initiative, or National Legal Aid and Defender Association to explore available legal aid services and funding.
“You don’t want to wait for youth to come to you with a legal problem,” Lofgren says. “You need to go to them.” Become a familiar face in places where youth feel safe and get their basic needs met, she says, to get to know them and form a connection. Legal providers can work directly with youth to make a road map for next steps or even partner with a case manager to support any needed follow-up.
Not all homeless youth visit the same community resources, Lofgren adds, so it is important for advocates to think through a range of places they might go for help. For example, Lofgren visits local family shelters to connect with parenting youth and attends support groups for at-risk transgender youth in a health care setting where they access hormone therapy.
Giving all homeless young people access to legal resources increases their chances for success, Lofgren says, by giving youth what they need to reduce their roadblocks and accomplish their goals.