Youth Homelessness

Homeless youth are youth (minors under 18) and young adults (18 to 25 years) who experience homelessness on their own, unaccompanied by a parent, guardian or another older adult. They may have run away from home or been kicked out; have left foster care or been emancipated; or have exited the juvenile justice system – all without any permanent housing arrangement in place.  They may be a parent (almost always a mother) with young children. Some practitioners and researchers also differentiate a group of “street youth,” who have spent at least some time staying in an unsheltered location.[1] Along with former foster care youth, LGBT youth appear to be at heightened risk of homelessness – often as a result of family conflict stemming from their sexual orientation.[2]

Unaccompanied homeless youth witness and experience trauma and abuse at much higher rates than their housed peers, both before leaving home and once they are on their own. They are more likely than other young people to have mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD,[3] and to engage in risk behaviors that leave them vulnerable to health problems and other challenges.[4]

The data available through the homeless services system—Point-in-Time counts and Homeless Management Information Systems data —show very few people under 18 years of age experiencing unaccompanied homelessness, with fewer than 4,000 sheltered or unsheltered unaccompanied minors found during the 2016 Point-in-Time count. This is likely to be an undercount, since traditional counting methods, although improving, were designed to count adults and not youth who are less likely to use homeless services and more likely to couch-surf with friends and family.

The 2016 count found nearly 32,000 homeless young adults and 23,000 people in homeless households in which a youth or young adult is the parent. All of these counts are based on the HUD definition of homelessness.  The Department of Education uses a more expansive definition of homelessness.  For methodological reasons, neither HUD nor the Department of Education are able to conduct counts that capture all of those who are eligible, by definition, for their services.

Federal efforts to end youth and young adult homelessness have been expanding.  HUD has begun to fund a series of youth demonstration programs.  There is increasing coordination between HUD and the Department of Health and Human Services.  New efforts are underway to do a better job of assessing the size and nature of the homeless youth population.

[1] Toro, Paul A., Amy Dworsky, and Patrick J. Fowler. Homeless Youth in the United States: Recent Research Findings and Intervention Approaches. Paper developed for the National Symposium on Homelessness Research (March 1-2, 2007).

[2] LGBT. Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs (

[3] Toro, Paul A., Amy Dworsky, and Patrick J. Fowler. Homeless Youth in the United States: Recent Research Findings and Intervention Approaches. Paper developed for the National Symposium on Homelessness Research (March 1-2, 2007); Perlman, Staci, Joe Willard, Janette E. Herbers, J.J. Cutuli, and Karin M. Eyrich Garg. Youth Homelessness: Prevalence and Mental Health Correlates. Journal of the Society for Social Work & Research. 2014; 5(3): 361-377.

[4] Zerger, Suzanne, Aaron J. Strehlow, and Adi V.Gundlapalli. Homeless Young Adults and Behavioral Health: An Overview. American Behavioral Scientist. 2008; 51(6): 824-841.

Debra Rog

Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs