Research has found that homelessness among young people is a fluid experience. From couch surfing to sleeping on the streets or in a shelter, the vast majority of youth do not become homeless by choice. Many different factors contribute to youth homelessness. The majority of youth experiencing homelessness 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.

Specific subpopulations of youth and young adults face a higher risk for homelessness.

  • Black youth face an 83% increased risk than their white peers.
  • Hispanic youth face a 33% increased risk.
  • LGBTQ youth were more than twice as likely to have experienced homelessness.
  • Young parents—especially unmarried—had a three times higher risk than non-parenting peers.
  • Youth with experiences of foster care, juvenile detention, jail, or prison.
  • Youth who do not complete high school are 3.5 times more likely to experience homelessness than peers who completed a high school diploma.

For many youths, instability in their homes forces them out onto the streets before they are adults. Family experiences like child abuse and/or neglect, domestic violence, parental substance use, or family conflict can lead to youth homelessness. Ninety percent of youth accessing youth shelters for minors through the federally funded Basic Center programs state that they experience difficulties at home, such as constant fighting or screaming.

Parental issues and ensuing conflict related to a youth’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression is another reason youth become homeless. Youth are kicked out of their home or leave home because it is too dangerous for them to stay. One study found that twenty-five percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth reported family rejection as the reason for their homelessness. Multiple studies have shown that up to 40% of homeless youth are LGBT. Simultaneously, LGBT homeless youth are targeted for even more exploitation on the streets than their straight homeless peers.

An unplanned pregnancy can also result in residential instability and homelessness as a result of rejection from a partner, family, and friends. Many youth are ejected from their homes due to their pregnancies, and even more, homeless youth become pregnant once they are on the streets. Studies have found that one-third of parenting teens have experienced homelessness, with 40% of these surviving on the streets while pregnant.

For some youth, family instability leads to involvement with the child welfare system. There is a disproportionate representation of foster youth among the homeless youth population. Approximately 12% to 36% of youth who age out of the foster care system become homeless. Though some former foster care youth manage to find suitable living situations after emancipation, one study found that 31% of youth transitioned more than five times within a two to four-year span post-foster care.

While youth who age out of foster care are expected to be independent, they often have not acquired the skills or ability to earn the income needed to live on their own. Youth who emancipate from foster care are less likely than youth, in general, to graduate from high school or college, limiting employment opportunities and leads to financial instability.

Additionally, many young people in the foster care system run away or are forced out of their foster care living situation due to conflict and/or rejection. Every year, 4,500 to 6,500 young people run away from their foster care placement. Some young people run away because they want to reconnect with their biological family, and other young people are fleeing abusive or unwelcome foster care placements.

Residential instability is common among low-income families, with residential instability often being a precursor to homelessness—perhaps the worst possible housing outcome for families. Due to a lack of sustainable and affordable housing, joblessness coupled with residential instability experienced by poverty-stricken families, many youth are forced to find shelter outside of the traditional family dwelling. In some instances, a lack of financial resources may lead to older youth leaving the household to reduce the family’s strain.

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about “disconnected youth, “also known as “opportunity youth.” Disconnected youth characterized by their disconnection from education, the workforce, and social support networks are off-track to reach a future that includes self-sufficiency, economic stability, and overall well-being. Homeless youth are the most extreme example of disconnection and face multiple hurdles to reconnection.

Educational systems: Most homeless youth are disconnected from the educational system and have been off-track educationally for an extended period. This can result in dropping out before completion of a high school degree. Lack of high school completion is linked to unemployment and diminished earnings among those who are employed. Someone who has not completed high school is four times more likely to be unemployed than a college graduate.

Workforce: Some youth are homeless because they are on their own and unable to afford housing due to unemployment or underemployment. The degree of youth disconnected from the workforce is at unprecedented levels. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the overall unemployment rate for young workers ages 16–24 jumped from 8.4% to 24.4% from spring 2019 to spring 2020, while unemployment for their counterparts ages 25 and older rose from 2.8% to 11.3%. The picture is starker for homeless youth who had little opportunity to develop the academic credentials, job skills, and work supports needed to gain employment.

Social support networks: Youth and young adults who experience homelessness undergo a disruption in support networks and a sense of isolation. They withdraw from social networks and do not actively seek support to deal with their problems. Individual barriers to seeking services include denial of problems, pressure to focus on basic resources (e.g., food, shelter, clothing), fear of not being taken seriously, concerns about confidentiality, and lack of knowledge about available services. Studies show that homeless youth’s ability to accumulate resources through their relationships with others (i.e. social capital) is often associated with improved outcomes.

What You Need To Know

  • 4.2 million youth and young adults experience some form of homelessness every year in America.
  • Youth homelessness is just as prevalent in rural communities as it is in urban communities.
  • Homelessness for youth is a fluid experience with many young people experiencing different types of homelessness, from couch-surfing to sleeping on the streets or in a shelter.
  • Half of youth who experience homelessness in a year are doing so for the first time.