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

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.

Bright Idea: Five Ways to Help Your Library Become an Ally to Youth

There are a lot of reasons the public library fits well into services for runaway and homeless youth. Libraries are protected from the elements. They have free community meeting spaces, computers, free Wi-Fi, books and magazines, comfy chairs. And homeless youth are already going to libraries as a safe haven from the streets and to use their resources, says Julie Winkelstein, post-doctoral researcher in information sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  

“Librarians can make great allies for the youth, who often need more trusted, caring adults in their lives, and great partners for the social workers,” says Winkelstein, who last year received funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for a project that aims to get libraries and social service providers to work together to promote wellbeing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning homeless youth.

Unfortunately, Winkelstein says, as public spaces libraries often have rules that end up seeming unwelcoming to homeless young people. Some libraries warn patrons against bringing in large, or too many, bags. Others have policies against sleeping and odors. And young people without a permanent address may be unable to get a library card, which they need not only to check out books but also, at some libraries, to access the Internet.

While the intention behind these rules is to keep libraries hospitable to all, sometimes the rules stem from negative stereotypes that are simply a result of lacking understanding, says Vicki Terrile, director of Community Library Services at Queens Library in New York. By reaching out to their local branches, particularly to the librarians focused on teens and young adults, Terrile says, youth and family services workers can clear up misconceptions and better prepare library staff to welcome young people experiencing homelessness and point them toward services.

Here are five things you can do:

  1. Train librarians on how to recognize homeless youth, even if they are trying to keep a low profile, and regularly provide librarians with up-to-date information on local services to which they can refer youth.
  2. Find one person on the library staff you can send youth to for services they may particularly benefit from, like learning how to scan important documents or save files in the cloud.
    “Educating [all] staff to be more welcoming doesn’t always happen, but all it takes is one person to be a liaison,” Terrile says.
  3. Work with the library branch, or your library system, to create more-inclusive visitor policies. For example, Winkelstein says, libraries could provide lockers for youth and others experiencing homelessness to store backpacks and other belongings while in the library, and be more flexible about time limits on the computers.
  4. Encourage your library system to make library cards accessible to all by waiving for homeless people the requirement to have a permanent address or some form of identification to get a library card or access other library services.  Both Winkelstein and Terrile noted that some libraries accept a letter from service providers or whomever youth are temporarily staying with to either waive the requirement, or grant a restricted, or “surfer card,” that doesn’t allow checking out books, but allows Internet access.
  5. Recommend that libraries take the needs of LGBTQ youth (who make up a large proportion of runaway and homeless young people) into account. For example, Winkelstein suggests, libraries could provide a gender-neutral bathroom and put up “safe space” posters and stickers--or “hate-free zone” posters, if the library cannot guarantee safety. You might also provide training on working with LGBTQ youth, and on using non-gender-normative vocabulary in general. “If it’s going to be a safe space, [addressing librarians’ stereotypes] is work that needs to be done,” Terrile says.

Primary Sources: Helping Pediatricians Understand Youth and Family Homelessness

Meeting the Challenge: Responding to Health Care Needs of Homeless Youth” (abstract). Inger Anthony. Clinical Pediatrics, Vol. 53, No. 1, January 2014.

What it’s about: This article presents a bird’s-eye view of homeless youth and family statistics so that pediatricians can better understand and serve those populations.

Why read it: While the paper is addressed to pediatricians, certain recommendations are relevant to youth and family workers. The author also recommends that doctors collaborate with social workers in order to provide care for families whose lack of stability or strained schedules make it hard to regularly see doctors.

Biggest takeaway for family and youth workers: Author Inger Anthony claims that there is a huge gap in knowledge among pediatricians as to the effects and risks of youth and family homelessness. While the author stops short of saying so outright, youth and family workers are in a unique position to share this knowledge through collaborations and training. For example, the fact that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth are disproportionately represented among the homeless population is something that many homeless youth providers know firsthand and could share with providers. Anthony claims that a better understanding of the “homeless worldview” would improve services by opening doctors’ eyes to the specific health concerns and risks that face homeless youth and families.

Anthony notes six areas of concern for any doctor helping homeless families: physical health, nutrition, mental health, sexual health, substance use and victimization. She suggests that doctors share with families the Pediatric Symptom Checklist, a tool that enables parents to recognize physical and mental symptoms in their children. Social service providers could also give the checklist to families and youth they serve.

She also says that one of the main obstacles to proper homeless health care, for homeless youth and families alike, is a lack of long-term relationships with doctors. Anthony's article implies that many doctors stand to learn a lot by getting training from youth and family workers, or by engaging in monthly visits to shelters to give routine checkups to homeless youth. Such collaborations would simultaneously expand doctors’ understanding of the homeless experience and help homeless young people form long-term relationships with doctors.

Additional references: Find abstracts of other literature on health care in our digital library.

The Pediatric Symptom Checklist (PDF, 40KB) is available from the Health Resources and Services Administration's Bright Futures inititative. We recently wrote about Tulane University’s free health care drop-in center for young people. We've also written about a regular on-site health care clinic for homeless youth in Minneapolis.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of this and other publications.

Interactive Tool Helps Parents and Other Adults Talk to Young People About Drinking

Parents have a significant influence on young people's decisions about drinking, especially when they create supportive and nurturing environments in which their children can make their own decisions.

You can help parents prepare to talk to their children about drinking with the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration's interactive tool, "Start the Talk."

The evidence-based tool uses animated characters so parents--or people who work with youth--can role-play conversations about drinking.

"Start the Talk" is part of SAMHSA's "Talk. They Hear You. Campaign," which aims to curb underage drinking. 

View "Start the Talk."

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

Bright Idea: Functional Family Therapy Helps Young People and Their Kin to Cope and Change

In his work with troubled youth, Functional Family Therapy co-founder James Alexander found that his efforts that didn’t include a child’s family often weren’t successful. And work with parents that didn’t include the child met the same fate.

So Alexander developed Functional Family Therapy, or FFT, to help the individual by including the entire family. More than 40 years later, organizations around the world are using the therapy. One such group is The New York Foundling, a nonprofit that offers an array of services to address 6,000 children and families in crisis in New York and Puerto Rico.

“The two key things that stood out to us about the FFT model were the capacity to engage with families and the capacity to fundamentally change the conversation taking place in the home,” says Bill Baccaglini, president and CEO of The New York Foundling.

“FFT works relationally, meaning with the whole family, rather than just the individual child or parent,” Baccaglini says. The aim, he says, is to empower them to address the issues that present a risk and ultimately motivate family members to work together to create a healthier future.

There are some instances when FFT isn’t an appropriate option, says Pam Hawkins, senior associate at the California Institute for Mental Health.

If the youth is in immediate crisis –- suicidal or homicidal –- FFT is not appropriate, she says. But even in such cases, once the crisis is resolved FFT can be helpful to prevent future crises in the family, Hawkins says.

Phases of Change

Often, families aren’t initially excited about participating in the therapy, says Doug Kopp, CEO of FFT, LLC, which provides FFT training to organizations around the world.

“Sometimes families come in defensive or overwhelmed, not knowing what to do,” he said. “They feel like they’ve done something wrong.”

Therapists guide the family through five phases, usually in 12 sessions.

  1. Engagement phase: Therapists work with families to ensure they’ll stick around for all of the sessions and show their desire to listen, help and respect everyone involved.
  2. Motivation phase: Therapists work to minimize hopelessness and low self-efficacy, creating a positive motivational context. They work to stop negative interactions and blaming.
  3. Relational assessment: With the family, therapists use the skills of observation, questioning and analysis to move from an individual problem focus to a relational perspective. They also develop plans for behavior change and progress post-therapy in preparation for the final two phases of the therapy.
  4. Behavior change phase: The goals of this phase are skill building and changing problematic behavior and coping patterns. Therapists work with families to model and promote positive behavior and develop creative ways to change behavior.
  5. Generalization phase: This phase involves planning to prevent relapse and encourage the use of community systems.

Throughout the process, family members are encouraged to talk about their issues. Therapists work to create an open environement where everyone can talk honestly and feel heard, understood and respected, says Kopp.

Organizational Shift

Baccaglini notes that it’s not just the participating families that have to be ready for change in order for FFT to be successful.

“FFT gives caseworkers tools to work in very prescribed, methodical ways,” Baccaglini said. “But the culture of your agency must be ready to accept and support this type of shift.”

Hawkins acknowledges that a lack of flexibility can change the way a practitioner does their work, but complications can be avoided if the organization takes into account the requirements of the therapy and allows practitioners the time and resources they need.

Tweeting for Teens: A Recap of Our #NCFYchat on Dating Abuse and Pregnacy Prevention

The Family & Youth Services Bureau works to end teen pregnancy and dating violence. So on February 27, social workers, program administrators and youth advocates joined FYSB's National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth on Twitter to discuss the connection between teen dating abuse and pregnancy. Co-hosted by anti-dating violence advocate Break the Cycle, "Building Healthy Relationships: Collaborating on Teen Dating Violence and Pregnancy Prevention" drew more than 120 participants.

Throughout the chat, NCFY and Break the Cycle posed questions on topics like healthy-relationship building and the need for collaboration. This format opened the floor for individuals and national experts like the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence to chime in with their insights and resources.

Couldn't make it to the Twitter chat? We've shared some of the top tweets below. You can also read the full text of the chat by logging into Twitter and searching for #NCFYchat.

On how family- and youth-serving organizations can promote healthy relationships:

On skills young people need to make positive relationship decisions:

On collaborations to prevent both adolescent pregnancy and teen dating violence:

Bright Idea: Three Ways to Help Young People Cope With STI Tests

According to the CDC, half of all new sexually transmitted infections happen among 15- to 24-year-olds. It follows that encouraging young people to get tested is important for their ongoing wellbeing and sexual health.

Sounds simple, right? But in the real world, it may be incredibly difficult to get young people to get tested. Limited transportation and busy schedules may keep young people from going to testing sites. Teens and young adults may not understand the importance of getting tested or what testing entails. And they may feel overwhelmed by the very idea of testing and, especially, the prospect of testing positive. In particular, young people who’ve experienced relationship abuse or sexual violence may be dealing with a lot and find testing tough to face.

We wanted advice on how youth and family services professionals can not only get young people tested but also support them through the process. So we talked to Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Dating Abuse Helpline, and Melissa Sellevaag, director of clinical services at Metro TeenAIDS in Washington, DC. Here are their tips:

1. Make it easy—and free or low-cost. Either bring the testing to young people, or bring young people to the testing, Ray-Jones says.

For example, she says a shelter in Austin has a physician come once a week to offer health care and exams on site. Another shelter has someone on staff drive a van to the local clinic twice a week.

Many local community clinics offer free or reduced price physical exams, including the opportunity to get tested. If a patient tests positive for an STI the clinic can help get them reduced cost treatments or prescriptions, as well as needed emotional support.

2. Offer counseling to every young person with a positive result. If a young person tests positive for an STI, Ray-Jones recommends helping her to get counseling. A young person may not show feelings of grief and betrayal when diagnosed with an STI, but she is likely to have them.  If your program doesn’t have a therapist on staff, try to help young people find a local support group or counseling at the clinic where testing took place. Counseling can include conversations about safer sex. It can also help young people learn how to take medicine appropriately.

3. Follow up about the health care the young person needs. Ray-Jones notes that young people who’ve just tested positive for an STI may feel overwhelmed or ashamed. They might not be thinking first and foremost about keeping appointments. So remind them. Remind them also to call doctors about their test results, especially if there isn’t a good place where the doctor can contact them. Asking for test results is intimidating, so being matter-of-fact about it can be helpful.

Sellevaag says, “We accompany them to their first appointment and then enroll them in our case management program until we know for sure that they are retained in medical care which is usually at minimum a year-long process.”

New Flexibility for Schools to Pay for Transporting Homeless Students

The Consolidated Funding Act approved by Congress last month includes a policy change that will enable school districts to use federal funding for disadvantaged students to pay for homeless students’ transportation to their “school of origin.”

Until this year, funds authorized under Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which are granted to schools and school districts with high numbers or percentages of students from low-income families, could not be used to transport homeless students.

Another part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, requires school districts to provide students who become homeless with transportation to the school they had been attending (their “school of origin”) if attending that school is in their best interest.

But getting young people to school can be expensive, says Dona Bolt, state coordinator for homeless education at the Oregon Department of Education.

“School-of-origin transportation for homeless students is probably the largest line item for school districts related to homeless students,” she says. “A lot of districts, smaller districts, have a hard time meeting the obligation to provide school of origin transportation to a different school district if it’s separate from the usual yellow bus transportation.”

Schools sometimes have to enable students to take public transportation, taxis or a car service. And until now some districts have had to do that by dipping into their general funds or soliciting donations, Bolt says. Now, if the district receives Title I, Part A funds, that money can be used to transport students to any school inside or outside the district.

Budgeting Flexibility

The new ability to use Title I, Part A, dollars to pay for transportation won’t change things for students, per se, Bolt says.

“They’re going to get to school no matter how the district provides the transportation,” she says. “The difference is in how the district is able to pay for it. It’s budgeting flexibility that we weren’t allowed before. Now we can use donated funds on other things kids might need: clothing, education support, space heaters, prevention of homelessness by providing utilities and rent.”

The Funding Act also clarifies that Title I, Part A dollars can

  • Serve the unique needs of homeless students by providing services different from those ordinarily provided with Title I, Part A funds.
  • Support local homeless liaisons, who coordinate services for homeless students and their families.

“Districts need flexibility to use funds in a way that best meets the needs of homeless youth,” says Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Duffield suggests that social services providers who work with homeless youth meet with their school district’s federal programs liaison and homelessness liaison (who are sometimes the same person) to share information about the specific needs of homeless students in the district. (If you’re a grantee of the Family and Youth Services Bureau’s Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs, you’re required to coordinate with your local homeless liaison.)

Guidance on the new policies for the use of Title I, Part A, funds will be forthcoming from the Department of Education.

Q&A: Amy Lin of Young Invincibles on Helping Young People Find Health Insurance

Lots of youth and young adults need health insurance. And they can get it in the Affordable Care Act’s Health Insurance Marketplace.

That’s why last month, health advocacy group Young Invincibles hosted National Youth Enrollment Day, teaming up with dozens of partners—from youth-serving agencies to health clinics—to educate youth about signing up for health insurance via the marketplace. With the window to enroll set to close on March 30, organizations across the country continue to work to inform youth about their options and help them navigate the process.

Amy Lin, National Organizing Director of Young Invincibles, spoke with us about young people and health insurance.

NCFY: What are some of the common hurdles you find young people face when it comes to access to healthcare?

Lin: One in four young adults doesn't have health insurance. We are working all over the country to change these numbers, and it starts with outreach and education to build awareness about what's in the Affordable Care Act and how it helps young adults.  Sixty-six percent of uninsured young adults ages 18 to 34 could get coverage on the Health Insurance Marketplace for less than $100 a month, but too many of those eligible do not know they qualify for financial assistance. By planning dozens of outreach and education events around the country [for National Youth Enrollment Day] and engaging many different groups and individuals on social media, we were able to get the word out and kick off the final weeks of open enrollment with a bang.

NCFY: What are some issues you see specific to runaway and homeless youth and teen parents and how can they overcome those issues?

Lin: We work closely with partners who serve vulnerable populations to be sure that we are highlighting the information that is most important and relevant to their needs. Some of the issues we know this population faces include not having easy access to their documents, lack of awareness of their eligibility for Medicaid and other services, and not having access to the Internet to sign up.  

NCFY: What can youth and family workers do to help youth clear those hurdles?

Lin: We work with community organizations and groups who serve young adults to make sure these groups are well aware of the benefits and financial assistance available to young people. These groups are the trusted sources for this information, so we make sure we're sharing it.  

Are you working to enroll young people in health insurance? Tell us about your efforts on Facebook and Twitter.

Primary Sources: What Promotes Resilience Among Alaska Native Youth?

Lived Challenges and Getting Through Them: Alaska Native Youth Narratives as a Way to Understand Resilience.” Lisa Wexler, et al. Health Promotion Practice, Vol. 15, No. 1 (January 2014).

What it’s about: Researchers interviewed 20 Alaska Native teens about their everyday struggles and life challenges, how they deal with those struggles and challenges, and what meaning they make of their experiences. The researchers wanted to dispel myths about Alaska Native youth, draw a picture of what life is like for them, and tease out what makes some youth more resilient than others.

Why read it: The Alaska Native population has a higher percentage of young people than the general U.S. population. Alaska natives are also more likely than the rest of the country to be poor. They have higher rates of substance abuse and suicide, face discrimination and tend to live in rural, isolated places. Research on Alaska Native teens is scarce, and this article attempts to provide information that could help service providers better address these young people’s needs.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: Lost relationships (because of friends moving away, parents divorcing, and other reasons), people “not being there for me,” the challenges of growing up, and boredom topped the teens’ lists of stressors.

The young people found strength in good relationships with friends and family. Other things that strengthened them and made them feel responsible and competent were helping others, being involved in activities like sports and living off the land, and giving back to their families and communities.

The authors say the young people sought self-reliance and meaningful ways to contribute and make their families and communities value them. These characteristics, the authors say, reflect cultural values and also suggest strategies for promoting better health among Alaska Native youth. The authors write:

Offering Alaska Native youth opportunities to be responsible, self-reliant, and active contributors to community betterment can be understood as providing culturally relevant resilience programming. Changing the focus from risk to resilience, future research can build on a community’s unique sociohistorical experiences, location, and meaning systems in order to develop locally driven youth initiatives to promote healthy development.

Additional references: Find abstracts of other literature on Alaska Native and Native American youth in our digital library.

The NCFY archive includes a story about Alaska’s efforts to promote successful transitions to adulthood for foster youth and runaway and homeless youth.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.


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