Youth Homelessness and the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act

In September 2014, William H. Bentley, Associate Commissioner of the Family & Youth Services Bureau and former USICH Executive Director Laura Zeilinger, highlighted the impact of Runaway and Homeless Youth Act-funded programs for youth experiencing homelessness.  These services – street outreach, basic center and transitional living (including maternity group homes) programs – are critical to meet the immediate needs of some of our most vulnerable young people. 

We know there are different ways that information is captured across Federal programs about the extent and scope of youth at risk of or experiencing homelessness. We also know that youth can experience homelessness in many ways including being unsheltered or living on the street, doubled-up or couch surfing, and this is impacted by complicated issues including poverty, abuse,  violence, trauma, and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.  As communities increase their capacity to capture information on youth, our understanding of the prevalence and characteristics of youth homelessness is improving and helping to shape strategies that respond to the diverse needs of young people.

Ending youth homelessness is a bi-partisan issue – there is no question it’s the right thing to do.  Our young people deserve every opportunity, and runaway and homeless youth programs are one of the key resources we have to address youth homelessness at the front-line of a coordinated Federal response.  A coordinated response means systems are working collaboratively and looking for ways to streamline access to services and leverage mainstream resources like employment, education, childcare, affordable housing and other public benefits as part of the safety net that includes emergency shelter and homeless assistance programs.  For thousands of youth, the network of RHYA-funded programs is the foundation for stability leading to access to mainstream services, reunification with family, or even development of skills to transition safely to self-sufficiency. 

For many disconnected youth, runaway and homeless youth providers are the first responders in the fight against youth homelessness. Making investments in the kinds of services and supports that vulnerable and at-risk youth need now is the only way we can positively impact long-term outcomes like housing stability, permanent connections, education and employment, and well-being.  As a parent, I remind myself that I am putting in a tremendous amount of effort now to make sure my children have access to the resources they need to succeed long-term and to leave the world in a better place. Likewise, young people experiencing homelessness need access to the resources that will support them on a path to lasting success.

RHYA expired on September 30, 2013 and there have been efforts to date to reauthorize and strengthen the Act with protections for youth victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation – issues that disproportionately impact youth experiencing homelessness. The bill also increases support for family intervention and reunification services – a key component, when safe and appropriate – of transitional living programs.   For service providers and front-line workers, there is a deeply personal commitment to this work – it’s the same reason I entered the field of social work and began my career in child welfare.

Preventing and ending youth homelessness is an ambitious but achievable goal. The work to get us there requires an accelerated effort built on cross-system collaboration, innovation, investment in what works, and outcome-focused planning.  There is an unwavering determination that drives us forward and communities across the country are providing examples of this commitment every day starting with the runaway and homeless youth programs that, for many disconnected youth, are the first step back onto a path of stability, safety and well-being.


Jasmine Hayes is the Policy Director for USICH, where she leads the efforts to prevent and end homelessness among families, children and youth, as well as increasing access to employment and education.

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