Enhancing Access to Legal Services for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Youth experiencing homelessness have an oftentimes critical, but overlooked, need for legal services. Unaddressed, this can have an adverse impact on a youth’s ability to access or maintain housing stability, employment and income supports, healthcare, and other mainstream services.

On September 28-29, the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Commission on Homelessness and Poverty and HHS’ Family & Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) convened the Homeless Youth Law & Policy Summit to address the unique legal issues impacting young people experiencing homelessness. The two-day summit gathered youth, advocates, funders, and service providers, local and federal agencies, and legal representatives. Together, participants identified and mapped out critical legal and policy issues facing youth, including gaps in how services are delivered. The summit focused discussions around developing strategies to build comprehensive legal systems that support the needs of youth experiencing homelessness and the providers who serve them.

The Legal Needs of Youth Experiencing Homelessness

During the summit, expert panelists, including young people with lived experiences of homelessness, identified a series of issues related to the legal system that providers should be trained to identify and address.  These issues included:

  • Status Offenses - A juvenile can be charged with or adjudicated for conduct that would not, under the law in which the offense was committed, be a crime if committed by an adult.  Common status offenses can include truancy, running away, or violating curfew.
  • Identification - Youth experiencing homelessness oftentimes need a replacement Social Security Card, U.S. passport, or U.S. birth certificate, and are unable to verify their identity due to a lack of proper documentation.
  • Custody and Placement - Youth that are forced from their homes due to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse may request state intervention, a civil protection order, emancipation, or that a nonparent caregiver secure custody or legal guardianship for them.
  • Public Benefits - Youth experiencing homelessness may need assistance identifying and enrolling in services and programs, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or Medicaid, in order to achieve greater independence, health, and safety.
  • Housing - Older youth and youth transitioning from foster care or the justice system can face economic, legal, and societal barriers to secure housing, and as a result may need help accessing shelter, contracting for housing, or securing fair housing or tenancy rights.
  • Identity Theft - Children in foster care are at a greater risk of becoming victims of identity theft and entering adulthood with compromised credit. These youth oftentimes seek assistance with credit checks and resolving inconsistencies before they age out of the system.
  • Collateral consequences of justice system involvement - All minors are entitled to court-appointed counsel in delinquency proceedings,[1] but may also need help paying associated fees necessary to complete a diversion program and get their record expunged.
  • Education - Youth experiencing homelessness may need assistance enforcing their rights under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, and ensuring effective implementation of Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA), which amended a number of key provisions of McKinney-Vento. McKinney-Vento ensures that Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) proactively engage youth in opportunities for academic success and requires school districts to allow students to remain at their schools of origin while experiencing homelessness.

Building Legal Service Capacity for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

In addition to policy recommendations, the summit also included recommendations to increase legal services for youth. Communities seeking to enhance the capacity of local legal service providers can do so by supporting local legal aid organizations, nonprofit agencies, state and local bar associations, law schools and pro-bono legal programs. Communities can also develop new programs where legal services do not currently exist, and can conduct trainings on the special legal needs of youth experiencing homelessness.

At the national level, the ABA Commission is funding the development and implementation of a national Homeless Youth Legal Network (HYLN) to facilitate the removal of barriers youth face to accessing housing, education, employment and income supports, and other mainstream services needed to attain self-sufficiency. The goals of the HYLN are:

  1. Develop a system of accessible and integrated services that address the legal needs of youth experiencing homelessness;
  1. Educate the private bar on the complex needs of youth and the legal barriers to receiving public benefits, education, employment, housing, treatment, and other services, as well as to raise awareness of the critical ways attorneys can assist this population;
  1. Engage and equip individual attorneys and law firms to provide pro bono legal services;
  1. Sustain a coalition of lawyers and advocates to foster collaboration and support to implement best practices in partnership with federal agencies and national advocacy organizations; and
  1. Provide youth experiencing homelessness and youth transitioning to adulthood from the child welfare or juvenile justice systems with job training, employment, and career-related resources.

As communities continue to develop and refine their coordinated community response systems to prevent and end youth homelessness, whether through the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program, the 100-Day Challenge, or otherwise, they have an opportunity to reevaluate existing resources and adopt strategies to engage the legal services community.

To help communities in these efforts, USICH, in partnership with DOJ, will release guidance in the coming months on the effectiveness of using legal services for individuals experiencing homelessness who are seeking to obtain housing and gain access to essential supportive services. The legal services brief will also provide key strategies for communities on how to use legal services to remove systematic barriers to housing.

To learn more the about HYLN or the work of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, please contact Amy E. Horton-Newell at amy.hortonnewell@americanbar.org. The ABA also invites the participation of homeless youth providers (both those who provide legal services and those who don't) in the national dialogue to design and implement the HYLN. To that end, please complete this brief survey to share your perspective and get connected with the interdisciplinary national planning team.

[1] In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967).

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