The vast majority of youth do not become homeless by choice. Many different factors contribute to youth homelessness, but studies suggest that there are common paths to homelessness for young people. The majority of homeless youth have either run away, been kicked out of unstable home environments, abandoned by their families or caregivers, involved with public systems (foster care, juvenile justice, and mental health), or have a history of residential instability and disconnection.
In 2017, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago released a groundbreaking first-of-its-kind study titled Missed Opportunities that found 1 in 30, or about 700,000, youth ages 13-17 and 1 in 10, or about 3.5 million, young adults ages 18-24 experience homelessness during a 12-month period. Missed Opportunities also found that youth in rural areas and youth in urban areas experience homelessness at very similar rates, and that one half of youth facing homelessness over a 12-month period are doing so for the first time.
Most research is based on school-aged (largely minors) homeless youth who are still attending public schools, which does not give a complete picture of the extent of youth homelessness in America, but is important regular and national data. Also, because of the reasons why youth are homeless and their desire not to become ensnared in either the child welfare or criminal justice system, many young people hide their homelessness and do not disclose their living situation even if asked directly, which makes it challenging to know the true number of youth experiencing homelessness.
Young people are extremely resilient and able to heal from severe trauma and go on to live healthy and full lives—if they are able to access housing, basic life needs, connections to caring and supportive adults, and have access to education, workforce development and long-term employment. Depending on what the young person experienced before becoming homeless and their length of time homeless, there is a wide range of physical, mental, emotional and behavioral issues have been shown to develop as a result of youth homelessness and prior traumas are at risk of becoming exaggerated.
Prevention is the critical first step toward an effective community response to youth homelessness. Not all incidents of youth homelessness can be prevented, but with appropriate, targeted services, some families and youth at-risk can avoid crisis. Improving the foster care and juvenile justice systems while also increasing supports to youth and families in crisis, does prevent youth homelessness.