Addressing the Legal Needs of Homeless Youth

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Homeless youth can find themselves in a variety of legal situations, facing criminal charges or defending their rights.

To address these issues, the Family and Youth Services Bureau and the American Bar Association partnered in 2008 to host a national conference on the legal needs of street youth. The two organizations reconvened in January 2016 to discuss the issues again along with federal partners and community organizations that serve homeless youth.

In this toolkit, we look deeper into the legal issues homeless youth face and how organizations can help them access assistance to prevent those issues from negatively impacting their chance at a future free of homelessness.

Creative Ways to Help Homeless Youth Access Legal Services

The homeless youth that come to the Youth Empowered Society drop-in center in Baltimore are not thinking about their legal needs. Food, rest, laundry, and maybe a movie are on their minds.

But although most homeless youth do not realize it, many of their day-to-day challenges do include a legal component, says Ingrid Lofgren, director of the Homeless Youth Initiative at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. An attorney by training, Lofgren regularly visits Youth Empowered Society to walk around and talk to young people using drop-in services. In doing so, she often learns that she can help youth access public benefits, investigate affordable housing, or start work on expungement proceedings.

Indeed, legal issues for youth can take many forms, including custody issues, affordable housing, fair employment and pay, or school enrollment and accessibility, says Vicki Taitano of Legal Services Corporation.

Both women agree that social service providers can play an important role in helping homeless young people understand their legal needs and available resources. Connecting those dots, however, may require some creativity.

Creative Partnerships

In order to serve homeless youth more effectively, it’s important to bring legal and non-legal service providers together early, Lofgren says.

Her regular work at the drop-in center is an example of a partnership between legal professionals and an agency where homeless youth feel comfortable and routinely visit. Establishing a legal presence in a youth-serving organization can take many forms, Taitano says, including a special legal outreach night, workshops, or having a legal professional attend intake interviews.

Lofgren recommends building a network of legal providers who care about young people’s needs and specialize in different types of law, rather than just giving youth a referral to an unfamiliar organization.

To do this, service providers can reach out to legal aid organizations in their community, Taitano says. Many already have a network of connections in the community and can refer providers to specific legal experts, depending on the needs of the youth. Since one legal partner may not be able to address the range of legal issues youth face, a special referral network with specific, vetted organizations can provide youth with many options.

Legal aid organizations can also train social service providers to identify legal issues young people may not share on their own. Teaching staff the right questions to ask, Logren says, can help them spot legal concerns and suggest the appropriate resources. In turn, service providers can educate legal providers about the specific needs of homeless youth.

Other partnerships are helpful as well. Lofgren meets monthly with the Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative, an umbrella organization bringing together legal, service, and health providers to connect about recent trends in youth homelessness and young people’s needs. By participating in coalitions and connecting with other providers, organizations can build a larger network to help youth find legal solutions.

Creative Funding

In some cases, providing access to legal services can require additional funding. Bob Bullock, senior counsel for the Office for Access to Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice, works to make sure there are different federal funding opportunities that incorporate legal aid as an eligible purpose for funding. He suggests that youth- and family-serving organizations add a legal aid organization as a sub-grantee when applying for funds, which can increase opportunities, he says.

Additionally, legal aid agencies may already have programs that organizations can use at no extra expense. Bullock and Taitano recommend starting with Legal Services Corporation, Access to Justice Initiative, or National Legal Aid and Defender Association to explore available legal aid services and funding.

Creative Connection

“You don’t want to wait for youth to come to you with a legal problem,” Lofgren says. “You need to go to them.”  Become a familiar face in places where youth feel safe and get their basic needs met, she says, to get to know them and form a connection. Legal providers can work directly with youth to make a road map for next steps or even partner with a case manager to support any needed follow-up.

Not all homeless youth visit the same community resources, Lofgren adds, so it is important for advocates to think through a range of places they might go for help. For example, Lofgren visits local family shelters to connect with parenting youth and attends support groups for at-risk transgender youth in a health care setting where they access hormone therapy.

Giving all homeless young people access to legal resources increases their chances for success, Lofgren says, by giving youth what they need to reduce their roadblocks and accomplish their goals.

Ensuring Homeless Youth Have the I.D.s They Need

Matthew Glover, a case manager at Urban Peak’s drop-in center in Denver, Colorado, has been assisting a young man from Detroit who had his wallet stolen. For five months, various clerks at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) provided inconsistent information about acceptable documents and exceptions necessary to get a new state-issued identification, or ID, card, Glover said. After multiple trips to the DMV, the young man remains without the ID he needs.

Proof of identification is essential for many of the things homeless youth need as they get back on their feet, including jobs, housing, and food assistance. It’s also often needed to obtain other forms of ID, catching youth in a difficult cycle. Unfortunately, the requirements for getting a state ID, driver’s license, birth certificate, social security card, or other identification document differ in each state and can be challenging to navigate. For runaway or homeless youth, likely disconnected from family, it can be especially tough.

“[ID-issuing agencies are part of] a system that is not based on youth empowerment,” says Angela Vigil, director of pro bono and community service at Baker & McKenzie, a law firm in Miami. “It’s designed for the adults working with kids—case workers, probation officers, Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, volunteers, and other service providers. For youth, even at times for those who are 18 years old, the system is not designed to let [them] do anything on [their] own.”

From finding ways for states to make the process smoother to identifying strategies to empower young people, service providers and policy advocates are working to ensure homeless youth are able to obtain the IDs they need.

Improving the Process

For homeless young people, one of the first obstacles to getting an ID is paying for it.  According to a report from the Center for American Progress (PDF, 855KB), a handful of states and jurisdictions allow people experiencing homelessness to waive or reduce the fee to get their ID—including California, Florida, Connecticut, Nevada, Kentucky, Illinois, and Washington, D.C.

In addition, some states allow homeless individuals to list the address of a shelter or drop-in center as their personal address, or to submit school photo IDs in lieu of the required state ID to get a social security card. In some cases, a service provider can apply for an affidavit to certify that the young person is who they say they are, a process normally reserved for caregivers. Young people can then use the social security card to get their state ID.

Unfortunately, many other states do not have such laws.

Amy Louttit, a public policy associate at the National Network for Youth, hopes to change that. She and her colleagues are creating a state-by-state guide listing the process and requirements to get an ID. The guide will assess which states are doing well in making IDs accessible, which need improvement, and a model law that advocates can take to their state policymakers.

At Baker & McKenzie, Vigil and her colleagues have also created comprehensive legal handbooks listing state laws that cover a wide range of issues, including the steps to get an ID. “[The handbooks are] intended as an empowerment tool, designed to be accessed by youth themselves, though we recognize that they will probably be used more so by adults sitting next to a youth to try and help them get an answer,” Vigil says.

Empowering Youth and Service Providers

While modifications to the ID process can be helpful, they are more useful if people in direct services are aware of them. Louttit recommends training homeless liaisons to create their own state-specific education materials about obtaining IDs. For example, liaisons working in states that allow youth to use a student ID can create a document highlighting that exception. For states that require the fee reduction or waivers, liaisons can similarly craft a boilerplate letter certifying that a young person is homeless. 

“Even lifting that little bit of a burden makes learning the information and being able to advocate much easier,” Loutitt says.

Back in Denver, Glover has taken his own steps to reduce the amount of time he and young people spend getting IDs. He now takes young people to the DMV in groups after determining they all have the required documents. He also created a flow chart for his fellow outreach workers to help them quickly make the same determination.

Additionally, Vigil suggests that youth have a “passport” or “backpack” that includes all of their important information, including their ID, shoe size, grade level, social security number, or any mental health diagnoses.

Giving youth and trusted adults access to this information will help young people more easily access needed services, she says, and place them on a steadier path to a safe, stable adulthood.

5 Laws That Help Youth Access School and Work

Photo of young man sitting on sidewalk in deep in thought
Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015: Reauthorizes the McKinney-Vento Act and the U.S. Department of Education’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program to support programs that provide school supplies and other assistance for students and parents.

Runaway and homeless youth face many obstacles to accessing quality education and employment. From the high cost of education to a lack of job skills and training, many of these youth find it difficult to gain entry to schools and meet workforce demands. 

The recently reauthorized McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act outlines homeless young people’s educational rights and protections to help them stay in school and learn the necessary skills for gainful employment. Check out our slideshow to learn more about other laws that help runaway and homeless youth stay in school and find careers. 


Legal Assistance for Homeless Youth: An Interview with Casey Trupin

Homeless youth can find themselves in a variety of legal situations, facing criminal charges or defending their rights.

Casey Trupin, program officer of Raikes Foundation and special advisor to the American Bar Association's Commission on Homelessness, discusses ways that service providers can help young people access legal aid.


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