A “solvable” problem: Behind the fight to end youth homelessness

Illustration of person carrying a bag to a tent

Illustration by Bruna Costa

Diamond Dumas was 15 when they first left home. A Floridian teenager with few financial resources, Dumas’s unstable home situation led them to crash on friends’ couches for months at a time while trying to finish high school. The odds were stacked against them; when students experience homelessness, their academics suffer.

But still, Dumas (who is nonbinary) graduated high school. A few years later, they graduated college, too — all the while, experiencing homelessness in a state that ranks among the most hostile to the young homeless community.

Those who experience homelessness under the age of 25 face a unique set of challenges compared to older adults experiencing homelessness. Many have been in foster care or have had an otherwise unstable housing situation before becoming homeless. A large share, like Dumas, are members of the LGBTQ+ community.

While D.C. has some policies and programs that have made the city a leader in combating youth homelessness, it has failed to deliver on promises of ending youth homelessness entirely by 2022. Recent studies show the city lacks policies that exist elsewhere in the U.S. that could help youth experiencing homelessness access housing, like a straightforward process of petitioning for emancipation. Meanwhile, local leaders are debating the best ways to address youth homelessness, including whether the city should issue an updated plan to end homelessness for young people.

But it’s not just a local problem. All of the experts Street Sense spoke with about young people experiencing homelessness, both in D.C. and nationwide, agreed on one thing: youth homelessness is in a state of crisis and demands significant legislative and community action.

About 4.2 million young Americans experience homelessness each year. A sixth are unaccompanied minors. Pregnant or parenting people, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people of color are most likely to experience homelessness.

In D.C., 2023 counts estimated just over 700 minors experience homelessness with their family on any given night, as well as there are 521 youth ages 18-24. One study estimates that out of every 1,000 minors living in D.C., 4.8 experience homelessness, and that for every 1,000 people between 18 and 24 years old in the District, 8.9 experience homelessness. However, experts believe these estimates underestimate the number of people experiencing homelessness because people who couch-surf but lack stable housing are often not counted.

Certain demographics — especially young people who already experience structural inequalities — are more likely to experience homelessness in their teens or twenties. According to research from the National Network for Youth, Black and Hispanic youth are 83% and 33% more likely, respectively, to experience homelessness compared to their white counterparts. And LGBTQ+ youth are twice as likely to experience homelessness when compared to their non-LGBTQ+ peers.

Youth who have been in foster care, too, are more likely to experience homelessness. According to data from the National Foster Youth Institute, 20% of youth in foster care experience homelessness after their time in foster care ends at the age of 18. And a whopping half of all people experiencing homelessness today spent some of their childhood in foster care.

Locally, 40% of youth experiencing homelessness in D.C. identify as LGBTQ+. The multitude of challenges affecting D.C.’s young homeless population — including the possibility of discrimination based on race or sexual orientation, unstable family dynamics and a lack of opportunities for accumulating wealth, make youth homelessness a complex problem.

To support young people facing these overlapping challenges, some people with lived experience of homelessness, like Dumas, have stepped in.

After graduating college, Dumas became the training and capacity building manager at the Pittsburgh-based youth advocacy nonprofit Youth Collaboratory, where they help train staff in caring for homeless or housing insecure youth. They said emancipation laws and fewer opportunities to amass financial resources are among the most significant challenges unique to those experiencing homelessness as young people.

People under the age of 25 often have not had the chance to build credit and accumulate financial resources, like some of their older peers. That puts them at a disadvantage when searching for jobs and housing, where credit scores, access to transportation, and a way to build credit are essential. Through both their work with Youth Collaboratory and their lived experience with homelessness, Dumas knows these challenges well.

“You probably don’t have credit. You probably don’t even have a car to sleep in. So it’s like you’ve had less life to gain some of these resources that would be considered yours,” they said. “So you really are relying on people and connections a lot more than adults who have had that time to establish those relationships.

To get better access to financial opportunities (like full control over one’s earnings) and immunity from laws specific to minors (like curfew laws) some minors experiencing homelessness seek to be emancipated. But many states have barriers to emancipation — such as a lengthy and complicated process that may be incomprehensible to a young person without a lawyer. D.C. does not have laws detailing the process of emancipation but instead offers a definition of emancipation, which can be confusing to minors seeking to petition for emancipation. As a result of this and similar emancipation policies in other states, many “unaccompanied minors,” or youth experiencing homelessness without their family choose not to seek our emancipation — especially if they are near their 18th birthday.

“To become emancipated is very much a privilege,” Dumas said. “You have to become homeless at exactly the right time to make it worth the financial investment, to go through all those legal court proceedings to become emancipated. You have to have money. You have to be the right age. You have to have support to go through all of that,” they added. Dumas, because they were almost 18 and would soon gain the rights of an adult anyway, ultimately opted not to get emancipated. Dumas never lived on the street; instead, they described their experiences with homelessness as more akin to “couchsurfing,” or living with friends or family. That is relatively common for youth who have experienced homelessness: one study showed that around 65% of homeless youth had couchsurfed in the previous 12 months.

Dumas, who lived at their partner’s residence for a time, as well as with friends during high school, found that couchsurfing did not provide the kind of housing stability they needed to thrive.

“You have to have a backup plan or know where to go,” Dumas said. “If me and my partner don’t work out, like, where would I be?”

After they earned a scholarship and matriculated to college, Dumas found the housing stability they gained was as impactful as the education, though they still struggled to balance classes with paying for rent and tuition.

“I’ve definitely viewed college as a housing opportunity instead of an educational opportunity,” they said.

To illustrate what homelessness looks like for young people today, in January, the National Homelessness Law Center (NHLC) released its annual set of data comparing how different U.S. states and the District of Columbia are addressing youth homelessness. The index ranks states by analyzing their policies on youth homelessness-related issues, from rent control laws to parental notices for emancipation to immigration status discrimination. Overall policy scores range from -24.5 (“negative”) to 94.5 (“high”).

D.C.’s overall policy score in 2024 was 28.5, a “fair” ranking and just below Maryland’s score of 29. Neighboring Virginia scored 18.5, a “low” score. The highest score of 45 (“fair”) went to California.

The index breaks down the scores by policy. In some areas, D.C. seemed to be a trailblazer, allowing minors to obtain governmental IDs without parental consent and establishing protections for renters who take their landlords to court or exercise other tenant rights (in some states, landlords are not explicitly banned from taking action against a tenant who complains to a government agency).

In areas such as access to legal aid and accessible public housing units for disabled people, however, D.C. received lower scores. For instance, D.C. lacks a right to counsel for eviction appeals, meaning that tenants who believe they have been wrongfully evicted from their homes do not have a right to a court-appointed lawyer to defend them. D.C. also has a high cost of living — ranking 5th in highest housing costs. This exposes extreme challenges to young people in D.C. trying to access housing on their own for the first time.

Under the previous scoring system, D.C. had the highest score in the nation, earning 90 out of 100 possible points in 2021. But since then, D.C.’s place in the survey has dropped to 6th, although states are not explicitly ranked in the index.

The new scoring system, which debuted this year, resulted from a series of NHLC focus groups with youth with experiences of homelessness. The goal of the new design is to “pivot from traditional harm reduction approaches to policies that, if implemented, would actually end youth homelessness,” explained Jeremy Penn, an attorney with NHLC.

The lower scores reflect a focus on growth, Penn said. Rather than comparing states’ scores directly, the new metrics are intended to demonstrate that each U.S. state has space to improve how they care for homeless youth and implement policies that could end youth homelessness altogether. D.C. especially earned few of the points associated with education-related questions, suggesting the city has room to improve to ensure young people experiencing homelessness can still access learning opportunities.

“We don’t want the states to be competing against each other,” Penn said. “We want them to be competing against the best possible version of themselves.”

Despite the interconnected risk factors and causes of youth homelessness, government agencies and advocacy organizations have made some strides in reducing youth homelessness.

The D.C. government offers some resources to youth experiencing homelessness through Solid Foundations, a five-year plan the city issued in 2017 to end youth homelessness by 2022.

That, however, has not happened, and despite implementing some programs to reduce youth homelessness, it remains a problem D.C. The Solid Foundations plan, however, did bring about the establishment of a Youth Advisory Board (YAB) and funding for youth Rapid Rehousing, a representative from D.C.’s Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) representative said. As a result, youth homelessness has been on the decline in D.C., and by 2021 twice as many shelter beds were available to youth than in 2017.

Most of the housing resources the city offers for youth in need of housing are “transitional” homes, like group homes and roommate living situations, the ICH representative wrote. Some transitional housing options serve mainly LGBTQ+ youth or domestic abuse survivors. St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth, and Families, specifically, offers services and transitional housing for young pregnant or parenting women at risk of homelessness.

Due to age restrictions for accessing many homeless shelters in D.C., finding shelter as a young person in D.C. can be challenging. The ICH representative, however, highlighted two youth-only shelters: Zoe’s Doors, a 24-hour drop-in center, and Covenant House, which operates several low-barrier shelters.
Aside from those, additional youth shelter and drop-in space is available—including the Latin American Youth Center and two spaces operated by the Sasha Bruce Network.

In addition to shelters and transitional housing programs, the city has a few voucher programs available for youth, including Rapid Rehousing and Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). Compared to families and adults, young people are far less likely to access permanent housing in D.C., a fact an August 2023 Washington Post article highlighted. According to slides from an ICH meeting, 98% of youth who were homeless in 2022 were not permanently housed by the city that year. But Rachel White, a senior youth policy analyst at DC Action, a youth advocacy organization, said that the figures suggesting only 2% of D.C.’s homeless youth access housing don’t tell the whole story.

“While those numbers are correct, it doesn’t show the full picture of what’s truly going on in the homelessness sector,” she said. Many of the services aimed at youth — like transitional housing and going to college — do not count as permanent housing, and thus are not included, and minors cannot qualify for housing vouchers.

Still, she acknowledged the shortcomings in D.C.’s efforts to understand and combat youth homelessness. She pointed to a lack of funding for D.C. homeless service providers as a cause of the lack of quality data.

“Youth homelessness provider contracts are underfunded based on the need,” White said, adding that in her organization’s case, more funding would allow DC Action to hire staff to collect and analyze data on youth homelessness. More accurate data could also result in more targeted efforts to assist youth in need of housing, she said.

D.C. government’s efforts to end youth homelessness have largely been driven by the Solid Foundations Plan. But now, partially due to concerns about staff capacity and time, and because the plan is no longer legally mandated, the ICH is considering not releasing an updated plan, instead folding youth homelessness into the city’s broader plan to end homelessness, Homeward D.C. 2.0, according to testimony from ICH Director Theresa Silla at an oversight hearing on Feb. 29.

“We do not need a special plan to end youth homelessness,” Silla said, arguing the city doesn’t make individual plans for other subpopulations that may require unique services, like returning citizens or aging adults. “If anything, what I need is an opioid response plan.”

She suggested instead working to make it easier for young people to access the supports available in the adult system. While Solid Foundations supported the creation of a dedicated youth system, some providers have also worried this has separated young adults from opportunities in the broader system for which they are eligible. “We need to house as many people as quickly as possible,” Silla said.

At the same hearing, Kimberly Perry, the executive director of DC Action, highlighted shortcomings in D.C.’s response to youth homelessness, including the fact that there have been few updates to Solid Foundations.

“It’s not sufficient for the ICH to squeeze in a few sentences regarding youth experiencing homelessness into Homeward DC or even combine reporting numbers in oversight testimony,” Perry said. “Because youth homelessness is a unique and complex experience that requires a completely separate system of support, a separate strategic plan is necessary.”

On the national level, some action has been taken, too. A Way Home America, a homeless youth advocacy organization, outlined policy suggestions in The New Deal to End Youth Homelessness — including changes to federal housing, immigration, and economic policies. Josh Cogan, A Way Home America’s director of public policy, said the policy suggestions were developed with input from youth with lived experiences of homelessness.

In February, members of Congress introduced the Youth Homelessness Guaranteed Income Pilot Program Act, which would provide direct cash assistance to emancipated minors and people under the age of 30 experiencing homelessness to help them pay for housing. Movement on that bill, however, has stalled since its introduction.

Cogan said that such a law could do a lot to help young people experiencing homelessness. But today, there are few direct cash transfer programs in place anywhere, despite evidence that similar programs in Canada reduce the days the people experiencing homelessness spend without shelter. “This piece of legislation is so monumental because it is one of the first for this population of homeless youth and young adults at the federal level,” Cogan said.

According to advocates and those with lived experience, policies like direct cash transfer programs, as well as support organizations like Youth Collaboratory, where Dumas works, have been shown to help reduce homelessness among young people.

For Penn, the problem of youth homelessness is not unsolvable. “It’s solvable. It’s unnecessary. It doesn’t have to exist. We can do something about it,” Penn said.

Issues |Housing|LGBTQ|Youth

Region |Washington DC

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