Dealing with homelessness is difficult under the best of circumstances, but some state laws make life even more challenging for runaway and homeless youth.
Nearly 80 percent of U.S. jurisdictions have statutes allowing police to take unaccompanied minors into custody, and 16 percent consider running away a status offense that is punishable by law, according to a report that reviewed laws in all 50 states and six territories. Four states — Illinois, Michigan, North Dakota and South Dakota — explicitly permit courts to place runaway youth who have committed no other offense in secure detention facilities for delinquent juveniles.
“Young people are in need of help, not jail,” said Amy Louttit, a public policy associate for National Network for Youth (NN4Y), which released the 422-page report in conjunction with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “We want to end any punishment of young people that are out experiencing homelessness from getting these status offenses just because they’re minors.”
An estimated 700,000 minors without a parent or guardian experience homelessness each year, according to a 2017 study by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall. These young people leave home for a variety of reasons, such as parental abuse and addiction, or they may be kicked out for identifying as LGBTQ or becoming pregnant. Forty-five jurisdictions authorize police to return these minors directly to their homes without considering their wishes, compared to 36 jurisdictions when the report was last published in 2012.
“We need to have a smarter reunification policy … there should be a thorough assessment of the family’s capacity, willingness and resources to support youth who may have run away. Youth don’t usually run away for no reason,” said Eric Wright, a professor of sociology and public health at Georgia State University who directs a research project on homeless youth in Atlanta. “I think Georgia is struggling to figure out how to respond to the needs of homeless youth.”
Georgia has a number of policies that can make life difficult for homeless youth, including classifying runaways as status offenders and requiring proof of residency to get a photo ID. Georgia is also one of 15 states (plus Washington, D.C., and American Samoa) where it is illegal to shelter or house a minor who has run away, regardless of their reasons for leaving home.
Pennsylvania, Wyoming among worst
The report identifies state-by-state barriers to getting a government-issued photo ID. Without proper ID, homeless youth are often unable to pick up prescriptions, apply for jobs and public benefits, open a bank account or enroll in school.
Twenty-six states require two proof of residency items to get a non-driver ID, and 12 states require a parent or guardian to be present for a minor to apply for an ID card. Pennsylvania and Wyoming were identified as two of the worst states for minors seeking an ID or birth certificate due to a number of age restrictions and no fee waivers for individuals experiencing homelessness.
“It’s hard out there without an ID,” said Sharday Hamilton, a member of NN4Y’s National Youth Advisory Council who experienced homelessness as a teenager in Illinois. “When I was homeless I wasn’t able to get services for my daughter … without an ID you are nobody.”
Researchers also applauded a number states that have enacted policies to make life easier for homeless youth. Indiana, for example, does not require a minimum age for emancipation if minors prove they can support themselves and have acceptable living arrangements. Maine requires permanency hearings that allow young people to explain why they shouldn’t be forced to return home if it’s not in their best interest. In August 2016, Hawaii and California implemented regulations to eliminate state ID fees for people experiencing homelessness.
“I would definitely say that California is probably moving in the direction of being a model state, as far as overall access to programs and services is concerned,” said Louttit, noting its progressive health care policies for homeless youth.
The report covers laws in 13 key areas that affect unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness, as well as recommendations for policy changes.