Student Well-Being

Are More Young People Homeless Than We Thought? Study Shares Startling Data

By Kate Stoltzfus — November 15, 2017 7 min read
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By Contributing Writer Kate Stoltzfus

At least 700,000 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17 (or 1 in 30 of the total age group) experience homelessness in a given year, according to a new study by researchers at Chapin Hall, an independent research and policy center at the University of Chicago. For young adults ages 18 to 25, that number is even higher: 1 in 10 don’t have a place to live.

The study was conducted as part of Voices of Youth Count, a research initiative led by Chapin Hall, which more broadly conducts research to improve policies around the well-being of children and families. Researchers collected data and the stories of young people ages 13 to 25 who experience homelessness or unstable housing to provide a clearer national picture of the problem. The report is the first in a series of briefs the initiative plans to release to address homelessness among young people and shed light on solutions to guide policy and practice.

Homelessness among students is often hard to identify. As federal data from earlier this year show, an estimated 1.3 million K-12 public school students, or 2.5 percent of all public school students, experience homelessness. Roughly 8 percent of those students are living without a parent or guardian and 1 percent are migrant students. It’s difficult to assess the exact numbers and characteristics of young people who are without homes, in part because systems can rely on self-identification or other overt signs.

That is changing, however. For the first time this school year, under the Every Student Succeeds Act, all states must now report on graduation and achievement rates of homeless students, and state and local education agencies have greater responsibility to identify homeless students and help them reach academic and social supports.

Researchers of this latest study say the new data should be helpful in allowing schools to compare prevalence rates at the national level to their own identification data. Because the survey included students who were out of school, did not depend on school identification systems of homelessness, and captured experiences over one year, researchers were able “to capture a fuller extent of the challenge,” said Matthew Morton, a research fellow at Chapin Hall who oversaw the study.

“Schools’ data gives us a picture of how well students experiencing unaccompanied homelessness are identified, and high numbers don’t always mean a bad thing because youth are being found,” said Morton. “What worries me is school districts where we see low counts of unaccompanied students because our data would suggest they are there, just hidden to the systems. There’s a strong implication in this work for improving schools’ response around identification.”

The Stats Behind a Persistent Problem

In a nationally representative phone survey of more than 26,000 people, researchers spoke with adults who had young people ages 13 to 25 in their households, as well as with young adults ages 18 to 25. Respondents answered questions about different types of homelessness that either young people in the household or they themselves had experienced. Researchers, in collaboration with 22 partner communties and agencies across the country, also used follow-up interviews, including 4,000 in-person surveys of young people in 22 U.S. counties and 215 interviews with young people in five counties.

Of those 700,000 13- to 17-year-olds who were identified as having experienced homeless at some point in the year, three-quarters were explicitly reported as not having a place to live (that also included running away or getting kicked out), while a quarter were reported as “hidden homeless” (such as couch-surfing from one place to another without permanent housing). About half of young adults ages 18 to 25 explicitly reported being homeless. What’s more, nearly half of the young people ages 13 to 25 who were homeless during a given year were homeless for the first time.

“Incidence rates are important for understanding how much of an upstream response is needed versus downstream,” said Morton. “You could get every young person off of the streets or the couch tomorrow, but the following year, we would expect about half as many. This dynamic is surprising but reinforces the importance of prevention and early intervention.”

The report distills several other key findings:

Homelessness happens under diverse circumstances, and early intervention is essential. The majority of young adults ages 18 to 25 began experiencing homelessness in childhood or adolescence. At least 1 in 4 young people had experiences of housing instability that lasted less than one month, and during the course of a year, over half of young people had one experience with homelessness. For young people ages 13 to 25 who were interviewed, more than one-third had lost a parent or guardian. Surveys with these groups also show about one-third had experiences with foster care and about half had been in juvenile detention or jail. Researchers say these systems signal entry points for homelessness prevention. Some young people who are homeless experience substance-abuse problems (29 percent) and mental-health issues (69 percent).

Rural and urban children experience homeless at around the same rates, but rural homelessness is not as easy to spot. While urban homelessness may be more visible (like people asking for help on street corners), adolescents in urban and rural counties experience nearly equal rates of homelessness (4.4 percent in rural counties vs. 4.2 percent in urban counties among children ages 13 to 17). This means that, while the numbers of urban young people who are homeless are much greater than those in rural areas, homelessness is an equal challenge for both populations. Rural young people are more likely than their city counterparts to rely on couch-surfing—in some cases, they are twice as likely to be staying with others instead of in a shelter or on the street.

Some young people are at greater risk of homeless than others. African-American and Hispanic youths are more likely to experience homelessness than other peers (83 percent and 33 percent, respectively), as well as young people who identify as LGBT (who have a 120 percent higher risk than their peers) and unmarried young parents (a 200 percent higher risk than their peers).

Education also plays a role: Those without a high school diploma are 4.5 times more likely to be homeless than their peers who graduated. But education isn’t always a predictor of homelessness. In follow-up interviews, 29 percent of young adults interviewed were enrolled in college or another education program while experiencing homelessness.

Kera Pingree, who spoke at a press briefing at the University of Chicago’s Washington office this week, was in child-welfare services at 12 years old and said there were few resources in her rural Maine community. She had her first child at age 14 and spent years in and out of rough living situations. When she was homeless for nine months, some of the shelters she stayed at did not allow her to bring her daughter, leading to a “crushing” four-month separation. Now studying political science at the University of Southern Maine, Pingree said it’s been “a healing experience to be making a difference” as a youth leader through the university’s community-engagement center.

“It’s important that we focus not only on urban but on rural youth homelessness, and care about the strategies that we use,” says Pingree. “Urban strategies don’t translate cleanly to rural areas.”

The report recommends several steps for Congress to take, including:

  • Providing funding every two years for a national estimate of homelessness among young people to track progress in alleviating the problem;
  • Providing funding for housing interventions and services;
  • Building prevention efforts into systems such as child welfare, juvenile justice, and education, where young people likely to experience homelessness are in public care; and
  • Adapting services to meet the unique developmental and housing needs of young people, including accounting for more limited services over a greater area in rural places and paying attention to the needs of specific populations of students.

“A lot of people see these numbers and see shelter or housing assistance,” said Morton. “That’s part of the puzzle, but we need Congress to create legislative entry points to make sure these systems have enough capacity to identify youth who are experiencing homelessness and connect them to services in their community, so none have to experience homelessness in the first place.”

Image credit: Getty / Graphs courtesy of Chapin Hall at University of Chicago

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.