On July 16, the Civil Rights and Human Services Subcommittee held a hearing entitled Strengthening Federal Support to End Youth Homelessness. Chairwoman Bonamici (D-OR) stated in her opening statement that it is a “responsibility to provide every child and youth with a safe and stable environment to learn and grow.” She noted that the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act had not been updated in over a decade, in which time data has shown youth homelessness to be “a public health crisis that demands a significant and thorough response.”

Recent research has found that over in a 12 month period, over one in thirty youth between the ages of 13 and 17 and one in ten youth between 18 and 25 will experience homelessness. Also, one in five homeless youth and victims of human trafficking, and one in six are sexually assaulted or rape. She advised that in working on the reauthorization of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act it must be ensured that federal programs engage and unite family members when it is in the best interest of the child, adopt trauma-informed practices, and do not discriminate against youth based on age, race, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

The hearing included testimony from Matthew Morton from the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, Melinda Giovengo from YouthCare in Seattle, Washington, Robert Lowery, Jr. from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and David Baker from the YMCA Youth and Family Services in San Diego, California.

In Mr. Moreton’s testimony, he explained how rates of homelessness are similar between rural and urban areas. However, youth in rural areas are half as likely to live in shelters because either they do not exist or they are not youth-friendly. Despite housing costs not increasing as rapidly in rural areas as in urban areas, the rates are likely comparable because there are higher poverty rates and fewer economic opportunities for young people. There are disproportionalities within subgroups of youth experiencing homelessness, such as American Indian. Alaskan Native and Black youth experiencing twice the risk of homelessness compared to other youth and LGBTQ youth have a 120% increased risk. Also, LGBTQ youth experience higher degrees of adversity while homeless, including exposure to violence and sexual abuse, discrimination, and death. Youth without a high school diploma are 4.5 times more likely to be homeless than their counterparts. Poor and inadequate transitions from the behavioral health systems can also contribute to homelessness, as 17 percent of youth leaving inpatient mental health services and 28 percent of those leaving substance abuse disorder facilities are homeless within a year. Three out of four youth adults experiencing homelessness experienced it as a minor, showing the link between family and youth homelessness. Furthermore, 44 percent of young homeless adult women are pregnant or parenting. Due to all of these factors contributing to homelessness, Mr. Moreton advised creating a mixed-methods approach to studying youth homelessness.

Ms. Giovengo discussed the need to have different approaches to handling youth homelessness given that their brains are not developed until they are 25 and they don’t have the credit, rental, employment histories, or life skills to survive on their own. The definition of homelessness used by Housing and Urban Development makes it more challenging to enact prevention programs. Communities are told to direct their prevention services only to students who are “literally homeless” and will not cover youth who are couch surfing or not continuously homeless. However, Health and Human Services have a broader definition that understands the fluidity of the homelessness experience. She advised that RHYA be fully reauthorized and needs to include non-discriminatory and gender-affirming language with increased support for human trafficking and prevention. She also advocated for the Basic Center Program stay be extended from 21 days to 30 days to give more time to reconcile with family and change all RHYA grant cycles from three to five years to give the program more stability.

Mr. Lowery described that since the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) opened in 1984, it has found that the majority of missing youth are youth who have run away, and runaway children often are not seen as a missing child by the general public. The average age of a runaway youth is fifteen, and they are at risk of life-threatening endangerment and need an urgent response regardless of why they are no longer in a stable living situation. NCMEC now carefully selects how they describe runaway youth, and never describe children under the age of 12 as a runaway, even if they left on their own accord. Additionally, Mr. Lowery stated that 94 percent of runaway children reported to NCMEC were missing from foster care, and NCMEC never discloses the child is missing from the foster care system to negate any bias that may exist. Runaway children also have an increased risk of being sex trafficked, with 1 in 7 being victims. Mr. Lowery also noted that with the growing social media presence of youth, predators are luring them to runaway and exploiting them, which is becoming a more significant problem and needs to be addressed. However, social media has also helped NCMEC recover youth. The use of new technology is crucial in assisting recover runaway and missing children, and continued partnerships is an essential step in getting youth back safely, according to Lowery.

Mr. Baker described his own experience with homelessness in his testimony. During college, he lived out of his car and used the school showers for bathing to avoid self-identifying as a student. Mr. Baker did not feel safe living in a HUD shelter, so he continued to live out of his car until he was contacted by the YMCA Youth and Family service transition program which housed him for a year and a half, which provided trauma-informed care and provided a support system. Now he teaches wellness workshops to help with emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and thoughtful decision-making, along with entrepreneur workshops. He advised a federal investment in programs like this to help get homeless youth the support they need to thrive.

During questioning, the witnesses emphasized the importance of trauma-informed and wraparound programs to provide support, the value of investing in prevention, the role of teaching how to safely use social media and having gender identity-based determinants for assigning youth to homes. With these advisories, they hope that there is more prevention of homelessness and runaways and more care for past homeless youth to help ensure their security.