A Few Simple Questions Can End Homelessness and Sex Trafficking Now

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Ruth WhiteI came to Washington, D.C., to work on housing and child welfare issues 17 years ago. I arrived with little experience working with homeless youth. But that doesn’t excuse a decadelong oversight on my part.

It took me more than 10 years to ask a few simple questions: How can 56,000 unaccompanied minors experience homelessness each night in the U.S. when there is a federal entitlement to foster care for children under the age of 18? How can there be any homeless youth under the age of 21 in the 22 states that have enacted legislation to extend federal foster care funds through age 21 and all but six states report using other funds to support services and housing beyond age 18?

More recently, like many of you, I lost sleep fretting over the sex-trafficked 12- and 13-year-olds described in vivid detail on the Senate floor during the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JTVA) filibuster in late March. The JVTA included a $30 million victims’ assistance fund and $140 million for shelter, transitional housing, and street outreach under the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA). Yet, despite the incendiary rhetoric, we watched in shock as Senate bickering squelched hope of bringing relief to these suffering children.

But after a while, I found myself asking: Why are we waiting on the Senate? Doesn’t the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) already have a responsibility to rescue children from these nightmare conditions?

You might be surprised to know that on the national level, such questions about knitting entitlement funding under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act with state and local child-welfare dollars to close the gaps through which these children fall are viewed variously as novel and naive. But rarely are they taken seriously or discussed at meetings of national advocates. We need to change that.

Oddly, as advocates, we seem perfectly comfortable looking to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to solve the problems of these children. But I’m beginning to respond to that approach with yet another question: Why?

There are all kinds of things HUD should be doing (and yet is not) to end family homelessness — but ending youth homelessness? This is a job for HHS.

Here’s why.

HHS has a responsibility to ensure child safety. But I’m told that trafficked and unaccompanied homeless children aren’t eligible for the protection offered by HHS-funded agencies unless they have been removed from their homes for abuse and neglect. Nonsense. Judges can adjudicate these children into foster care. Alameda County, Calif., does just that through the “Homeless Youth Demonstration Project” in order to extend housing and services to unaccompanied youth under the age of 21.

Furthermore, HHS funding is flexible. Title IV-E can follow the young person to the most appropriate and least restrictive setting. The HHS Administration for Children and Families provides guidance that encourages a range of housing options from family reunification, to traditional family foster care, to an independent apartment with supportive services provided by a licensed agency, or any other appropriate setting in between.

The placement must be selected with the young person’s input. It turns out that youth tend to vote with their feet anyway. If a placement is a poor match or worse, they are being exploited at home or while in care, they run away. A small minority might be lucky enough to encounter outreach workers for programs like Sasha Bruce, Covenant House, Ali Forney and Youth Care. But these programs rely on an unpredictable mix of the paltry RHYA funding, increasingly restrictive HUD funds and private dollars. Consequently, shelters and basic center programs turn away nearly 60 percent of the homeless youth who seek help.

HHS funding is not only flexible, it is elastic — meaning that it expands and contracts to meet the need. As such, no child, no teen, no one under the age of 21 should ever be homeless in the U.S.

Child welfare agencies must partner with these providers and reimburse them for serving youth. Folks argue that placements like these and other private housing programs aren’t eligible for Title IV-E because they are not licensed foster care agencies. More nonsense. If licensing poses a barrier to an evidence-based placement, then expedite the licensing process. Homelessness and exploitation are not acceptable alternatives to a bureaucratic hang-up.

Finally, I’m often reminded that not all youth are eligible for Title IV-E, as it is only available for children who have been removed by court order from the poorest families in the U.S.

True enough.

Outmoded Title IV-E restrictions are a constant source of frustration in the child welfare world. However, CWLA assures us that Title IV-E eligibility and family income have no bearing on whether a child is placed in out-of-home care. Title IV-E is but one flexible, elastic source of child welfare dollars available to prevent youth homelessness and end all of the victimization it invites.

One last question: Why wait?

Ruth White is one of the nation’s leading experts on the nexus between housing policy and child welfare. She is co-founder and executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare and former director of Housing and Homelessness for the Child Welfare League of America.

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