We are Failing our Children: Addressing Homelessness among System-Involved Youth

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bardine-pilnikThis spring, the federal Administration for Children and Families released data from interviews with hundreds of homeless youth age 14-21 from across the country. Researchers reported that nearly 40% of these youth had lived in a foster care setting, and almost 44% had been in a juvenile detention center, jail, or prison. Few advocates who work with or on behalf of youth who've been involved in the juvenile justice or foster care system were likely surprised by these statistics--foster care, justice-system involvement, and homelessness are a revolving door for too many children and young people in this country.

For some youth, system involvement may be immediately followed by homelessness, for obvious reasons: a child who is taken out of a dysfunctional or abusive home may not be welcome or safely able to return to his family after "aging out" of foster care; young people with criminal records may not be able to return home due to restrictions on their families' public housing; or parents may simply be unwilling to take children back after an arrest or stay in juvenile detention. For other youth, there may be a longer trajectory of challenges and failures leading to homelessness: youth in foster care and the juvenile justice system experience educational disruption, and the "education" provided in most detention facilities is notoriously bad. These youth, for a variety of reasons, are less able to complete vocational training, internships, and other experiential learning. This lack of education and ability to obtain employment means that these young people simply can't afford to support themselves once they exit or "age out" of our public systems.

No child should ever lack safe and stable housing, but our responsibility to address and prevent homelessness is perhaps most compelling for young people who have been taken from their own families and placed into the custody of the state. When the child welfare or juvenile justice system removes children from their homes due to parental abuse or neglect, or because of illegal acts committed by youth themselves, it takes on an obligation to meet at least their most basic needs. Yet due to an appalling lack of transition planning and the conditions these youth experience while in state custody, foster care and juvenile court involvement have become pathways to homelessness for far too many children.

Efforts are underway to address youth homelessness; these include work by government entities, coordinated through the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and by private consortia such as A Way Home America, along with the Coalition for Juvenile Justice's own recently launched project to address this issue. These are promising initiatives with tremendous resources and expertise behind them, but they are not sufficient to end homelessness for all of our children. These efforts need to be supported by individuals and communities holding their local, state, and federal governments accountable for ending youth homelessness and calling on all child-serving agencies to come together to ensure that our children have safe and stable housing - and that they are not criminalized for being without this basic human necessity. This is particularly true for those whose lives our public systems have already disrupted. The medical adage "do no harm" must apply to these children, and we must all demand more for them.

Lisa Pilnik is Deputy Executive Director, Coalition for Juvenile Justice, and Darla Bardine, Executive Director, National Network for Youth.

     This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post. 

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