This is a very common question. The short answer is, we don’t know. We do know that there are not enough beds and resources to meet the need, but we don’t know the exact number of youth who experience homelessness every year. There are several reasons why we don’t know how many youth are homeless year year:

  1. Many young people do not want other people to know they are homeless because they are ashamed of their situations and/or because they do not want to enter the child welfare system. Because many youth hide their homelessness, it is very difficult to get an accurate count of youth who are experiencing homelessness.
  2. There are different federal definitions of “homeless youth” that leads to confusion and limits the young people that are counted as “homeless.” For example, the term “homeless children and youths” for the U.S. Department of Education means those children and youth who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence; and includes those who are sharing housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason. 42 U.S.C. § 11434a(2)(A)&(B)(i).  Conversely, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) largely excludes young people who are “couch-surfing” or “doubled-up“.  Further, HUD’s annual Point-In-Time (PIT) Count only counts homeless youth living in unsheltered locations or those in shelters.  Youth who are temporarily staying with others (including strangers and those they have exchanged sex for a place to say) are not counted.  This leads to data that is confusing, not comparable, and difficult to explain to policymakers when explaining why the more resources are needed.
  3. The last large national study to capture the number of homeless youth (minors) in America was conducted in 1999 and only included youth that ran away from home or were thrown out of their home. U.S. Congress has not yet funded a study that was first required to be conducted in 2008. The Prevalence, Needs and Characteristics of Homeless Youth in America study was authorized to be conducted in the 2008 reauthorization of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) (42 U.S.C. 5601 note), but no money has yet to be appropriated to conduct this study.

Chapin Hall is in the planning and fundraising process for a national study on youth homelessness in America which will be comprehensive.

For more information, see: How Many Homeless Youth Are In America?

Youth become homeless for many different reasons. The vast majority of youth do not become homeless by choice. Many different factors contribute to youth homelessness, but studies suggest that some of the primary reasons are family dysfunction, sexual abuse, “aging out” of the foster care system, exiting the juvenile justice system, and economic hardship.

For more information, see: Why Do Young People Become Homeless in America?

The language used can be confusing and some people use certain descriptive words that don’t know what they actually mean. All of these words are defined here and should help you understand what exactly we are talking about when we are using these terms.

For more information, see: Definitions.