National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families

Q&A: New RHY Resources From the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

Cover of the report titled Alone Without a Home

Marta Beresin is a volunteer attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), the only national organization dedicated solely to using the power of the law to protect the rights of people experiencing homelessness. In February, the NLCHP published Alone Without a Home: A National Review of State Laws Affecting Unaccompanied Youth in collaboration with the National Network for Youth.

The new Alone Without a Home updates the original 2012 report. It also complements the State Index on Youth Homelessness, published last year through a partnership between the NLCHP and True Colors United. The Index provides an assessment of each state and territory’s overall approach to RHY issues, with number grades to match. NCHYF spoke with Beresin by phone to discuss her organization’s two recent major reports and their implications for people who work directly with RHY.

NCHYF: What was the goal of this new publication, Alone Without a Home?

MARTA BERESIN: Alone Without a Home is a national review of state laws. This latest 2019 report is an update to the original 2012 report — that was the last time the Law Center looked at the various laws in place. A lot of research went into it; the laws of all 50 states and 6 territories were examined.

Specifically, we looked at 13 key issue areas that affect the lives and futures of unaccompanied youth. These issues range from whether RHY can access identification like a driver’s license without their parents signing the form to how states approach status offenses — running away, truancy, and curfew laws. Do states punish kids, send them to juvenile detention? Or do they look at underlying causes in a non-criminal way? Other key issues include the availability of shelter, education, and other services, as well as access to health care.

NCHYF: So how can this report directly impact RHY services or advocacy?

The report is aimed at two audiences. First is homeless youth themselves and the people who work with them. If you have a young person in your office and they have a medical issue and need health care, or they have a mental health crisis, you can go to the Health Care section of the report, check the indexes, and look up your state. You might wonder, for example, what does the law say about whether this child can consent to treatment for sexually transmitted infections after a sexual assault? It’s a practical guide for advocates and social workers to look up information and advise a young person how to proceed, including whether a health care provider will have to report the treatment to their parents.

A lot of young people don’t seek out services because of fear that they will be turned in to the child welfare or juvenile justice system or refused services. The more information they have about what they can directly access, the more likely they’re going to seek the services they need.

Secondly, it’s a good tool for advocates to see what their state is doing and compare that with best practices. For example, if advocates around juvenile justice issues are concerned about the number of young people in their state who are going directly from the juvenile justice system into homelessness, they can look at Chapter 3, which highlights best practices for discharging young people, and see what works. Some states require that a housing plan has to be developed before a discharge plan goes into effect. Now you have the information at your fingertips to advocate for that.

It’s not grading, it’s not a report card, but it’s a good tool to assess your state’s response to the issue.

NCHYF: And how does that differ from the State Index?

BERESIN: The State Index on Youth Homelessness is a snapshot of the barriers faced by RHY. It’s more of a comparison of states, with rankings and number grades on how well each state addresses youth homelessness. All the research was done in Fall 2017, so everything is current to that time.

About half the points were awarded based on whether states had implemented 13 things that True Colors and NLCHP felt were essential for RHY. Some examples include declassifying status offenses, establishing grievance processes for students, a state plan to end homelessness with a youth component, and whether the state has mounted a public awareness campaign around RHY. Those are the broad issues. States gave yes or no answers, and the publication ranks them accordingly.

The State Index is more of a pure advocacy tool [than Alone Without a Home]. It’s a wide-angle comparison based on particular ideas. Alone Without a Home lists best practices, but the Index is like an extra kick: Is this why your state got such low scores? It can be a boost for your advocacy work.

NCHYF: Obviously Alone Without a Home isn’t comparative, but did you notice any big-picture takeaways from it regarding the state of RHY services?

BERESIN: First off, there is an unfortunate prevalence of punitive approaches to unaccompanied youth. For example, most jurisdictions, almost 80%, allow police to take homeless young people into custody. A significant but declining number still define running away as a status offense. And one-third of jurisdictions explicitly make it a crime to house or shelter RHY.

There’s good news, too though. Some jurisdictions require health providers and schools to serve RHY regardless of parental consent, which is great. Nearly two-thirds, 64%, allow young people to apply for health insurance without having to obtain consent of their parents. These are big improvements that allow young people to seek the kind of services that they need without fear of repercussions. Youth who are pregnant or sexually active or LGBTQ may not want their parents to know. Same as adults, they deserve confidentiality, and we don't want consent and confidentiality laws to be a barrier to youth seeking assistance.

NCHYF: And how about the State Index? This one is comparative, so we can see which states are doing much better than others. But are there any major trends you see?

BERESIN: The big takeaway from the State Index on Youth Homelessness is that the highest score was 65 [out of 100] — not a great grade. On these, there’s a long way to go in every jurisdiction. There are definitely some areas where individual states are doing well, though. Washington, D.C. is doing some great things around LGBTQ youth protections, for example. But as someone who lives here, it rings true: even in places where the services are decent, there’s a lot of room for improvement.