Young, Alone, and Homeless in the Lone Star State: Policy Solutions to End Youth Homelessness


The mental struggle that kids like me endure is not cliché.  It is not something you can be taught.  People’s thought processes are exclusive to their struggle.  Since you are not that person.  Since you have not endured what they have endured, you will not be able to understand where they come from.  Even if they explain themselves to you, you will never be able to fully understand where they are coming from. When they get in those situations or those fits of rage, fits of depression, when they feel like no one can help and they’re just out…All you have to do is be considerate to the possibility that this could happen to me…Once you open up that part of you, you are better received by us.

— C.F., Houston youth

Texas Appleseed became interested in systemic problems that fuel youth homelessness as a result of its work on other child- and youth-focused projects. We frequently saw children and young people whose juvenile justice involvement or problems at school were the result of homelessness or housing instability.  We met former foster youth who reported that they were inadequately prepared for adulthood when they aged out and, consequently, ended up on the streets for some period of time.  And our fair housing work has revealed to us the difficulties that communities and families across the state struggle with caused by the lack of affordable and safe housing.

Our interest led to a partnership with the Texas Network of Youth Services (TNOYS), an organization that also has a long history of advocating for young people in Texas.  Their membership of service providers and partnership with the state on Youth Count Texas!, a statewide look at youth homelessness mandated by the 84th Texas Legislature, make them experts in the issue.

Watch this short PSA about Youth Count Texas!

In the summer of 2016, Texas Appleseed and TNOYS began our research for this report, assisted by pro bono partners Vinson & Elkins LLP.  Our research included:

  • Over 100 interviews with young people who had experienced or were experiencing homelessness in Texas.
  • More than 50 interviews conducted by Vinson & Elkins’ team of pro bono volunteers with school homeless liaisons, juvenile justice stakeholders, members of law enforcement, foster care stakeholders, and service providers.
  • Data requests to Texas agencies that serve youth or touch on issues related to youth homelessness.
  • Research around existing programs and best practices.

What we discovered over the course of this research is that the issue of youth homelessness is one that is called by different names depending on the system the youth touches.  If a Texas youth is on the street, is picked up by law enforcement, and is under the age of 17, she is a “runaway,” a status offender who is referred to the juvenile justice system for rehabilitation.  If the youth instead appears in a shelter and the shelter contacts the child welfare system, she may be deemed a victim of abuse or neglect and placed in the foster care system for protection.  Thus the same youth, depending on which system she encounters first, is either a victim or an offender.

If a young person is not living on the street but is “doubled up” and living with friends or relatives, whether or not she is deemed homeless depends on which system of services she tries to access.  Her school would count her as homeless, entitling her to educational services and protections, but the community organization her school might refer her to for services may not, making her ineligible for their help.  The same youth is in one setting “homeless” and in another is not.

This is perhaps one of the clearest findings from the research that Texas Appleseed and TNOYS have done for this report: A disjointed policy and funding approach to youth who are without a home results in disjointed services.  Reducing or resolving the issue of youth homelessness and improving outcomes for young people is going to require a cohesive approach that brings all child-serving systems together to provide a full continuum of services.

Finding solutions is critical.  Research shows that young people who encounter homelessness are at high risk of poor outcomes, including:

  • Educational failure.  Youth who are homeless are more likely to be retained a grade or drop out altogether.
  • Juvenile or criminal justice contact.  Criminalization of homelessness and survival behavior may lead to justice system contact, which heightens the risk for ongoing homelessness.
  • Victimization.  Youth who are homeless are at high risk for becoming victims of crime, including human trafficking.
  • Health and mental health problems.

The goal of our report is to identify multi-system policy solutions that could prevent youth homelessness or provide for better interventions to ensure youth who encounter homelessness get back on their feet quickly.  We hope to shed light on what C.F. asked us to consider: how policymakers and stakeholders, understanding the reality that homelessness could happen to any one of us, can better open ourselves to compassionate, caring responses that are not only better for young people but better for our communities as a whole.

A Snapshot of the Problem of Youth Homelessness

No single data source in Texas accurately documents the magnitude of the homeless youth problem, however data obtained for this report from multiple state agencies, publicly available data, and a legislatively mandated report on Youth Homelessness in Texas (2016) indicate that:

  • Young children experience homelessness when their families lose housing, but they usually remain in the company of an adult or guardian.
  • The number of unaccompanied students who experience homelessness jumps dramatically between 8th and 9th grades, the number of runaways picked up by law enforcement or referred to juvenile probation increases beginning at age 13, and the majority of children reported as running away from a foster care placement are between the ages of 15 and 17.  A high percentage of surveyed youth experiencing homelessness (nearly 50%) report becoming homeless after turning 18.
  • The reasons for homelessness between ages 13 and 24 include one or more of the following: escaping abuse or neglect at home or in foster care, being rejected by parents and forced to leave home, aging out of foster care, and physical and/or behavioral health problems.
  • A high percentage of young people who become homeless identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) and, in many instances, their parent(s) have rejected them for their sexual orientation.  Young people of color and those with disabilities— particularly mental health problems—are overrepresented among youth who are homeless.
  • Seventeen-year-olds who are homeless are in a “no man’s land”—too young to sign a lease or enter an adult shelter, perhaps too old to be likely to be viewed by law enforcement as a missing child, and largely overlooked by Child Protective Services, which (particularly when stretched thin) may prioritize younger children.
  • Few shelters exist for young people under age 18, and some require parental consent.  Safety concerns discourage young adults from staying in shelters with older clientele.

[T]he general population, unfortunately, hasn’t been…educated to the fact that homeless youth do exist.  They are usually hidden.  They are very good at hiding.  So you may not see them, but they are out there.

  North Texas service provider

How youth who are without a home are viewed—as a runaway needing to be returned home or housed in a hard-to-find emergency shelter, a status offender whose homelessness is criminalized in the justice system, an abused child needing the state’s protection, or a youth on the threshold of adulthood who can make it on her or his own—depends on their age and how they intersect with education, law enforcement, justice, child welfare, and health care systems in different communities across Texas.

Educational Outcomes for Students Experiencing Homelessness

I started walking around the neighborhood, and I was just crying thinking to myself what am I going to do? Now I’m homeless, and I’m 17.  I’m supposed to be in school.  That’s all that ran through my head — school, school, school.     — C.J., Houston youth

Young people interviewed for this report confirm that school is often a place where they can still experience a sense of normalcy, despite the hardships associated with insecure housing.

Both state and federal governments prioritize supports for students experiencing homelessness to ensure they stay in school, yet these students remain more likely to repeat a grade, drop out, be disciplined at school, and be chronically absent—all of which increase their risk for future justice system involvement and repeat bouts of homelessness.

In the 2014-15 school year, the most recent year for which data was made available, there were more than 113,000 students enrolled in Texas public schools. Considering student population size, that amounts to about 22 homeless students per thousand students enrolled.  , are unaccompanied by an adult.  In addition:

  • The number of students identified by Texas schools as homeless grew by about 12% between the 2012-13 and 2014-15 school years.
  • Urban areas in Texas have the highest number of homeless students. (Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas ISDs accounted for 12% of homeless students statewide in 2014-15.)

Top 15 Districts with the Highest Count of Homeless Students (Accompanied & Unaccompanied), Ranked by Count (School Year 2014-15)

Many rural and suburban districts have the highest rate of students identified as homeless.  (For the same school year as the above chart (2014-15), Hull-Daisetta, Gustine, Prairie Lea, and Iredell ISDs had the highest rates of homeless students.)

  • When assessed by region, Abilene, Amarillo, and Victoria had the highest rates of students experiencing homelessness given their total student enrollment in the 2014-15 school year.
  • and disabled students are slightly more overrepresented among students experiencing homelessness.  
  • Males and females are about evenly represented among homeless youth, data show.

Texas Education Agency data indicate that the majority of students who are homeless are not “living on the street,” but are sharing housing with friends or relatives where they have no legal right to stay and can be forced to leave at any point.

Academic Performance

Each year in Texas, 1,000 students identified as homeless repeat a grade and 1,400 drop out.  Available data indicate:

  • Students experiencing homelessness are five times more likely to repeat a grade in middle school and 2.5 times more likely to repeat a grade in high school than their counterparts in secure homes.
  • Young people who are homeless are 10 times more likely to drop out of school.

It’s really, really hard.  When I was going to school and back, it was really hard being homeless. Sometimes you don’t really have the best clothes, and people are making fund of you.  People say ‘ewww she’s wearing the same pants she wore last week.’  It’s just because you don’t have many clothes.

  — C.M., Houston youth

School Discipline and Homelessness

Texas Appleseed has conducted extensive research and reporting on the impact of removing children from the classroom (“exclusionary discipline”) for minor misbehavior as a predictor of a young person’s future involvement in the justice system.  This phenomenon is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Despite state and federal supports to keep homeless students in school, data show that exclusionary school discipline policies are impacting these students at higher proportions than their peers with secure housing—effectively pushing them out without acknowledging that their traumatic experiences and insecure housing are likely impacting their behavior at school.

Unaccompanied students who are homeless who attend school in Texas are:

  • twice as likely to be referred to In-School Suspension (ISS);
  • 2.5 times more likely to be suspended from school (OSS); and
  • five times more likely to be referred to a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program.

Overall, at least 11,000 students who are homeless receive in-school suspensions each school year.  The most common reason is violating student codes of conduct – the lowest level of disciplinary violation.

At least 7,000 students who are homeless receive out-of-school suspensions in Texas each school year, and at least 2,500 are referred to a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP).  In both instances, the majority of these two kinds of out-of-school placements are also for code of conduct violations, not for fighting or drug possession.

Homeless students of color and those receiving special education services are referred to ISS, OSS, and DAEPs at higher rates.

Underfunding of School Supports for Students Experiencing Homelessness

Many of the state and federal mandates to serve students who are homeless fall on the schools, yet inadequate funding leaves these students underserved and under-identified.

Specifically the federal McKinney-Vento Act, recently reauthorized as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), allows students who are homeless to attend their school of origin or the school in the attendance area where their family resides even if they lack residency documents and immunization records.

A significant challenge facing many school districts is the underfunded requirement that they provide transportation even if students who are homeless move out of a school’s attendance zone or outside the school district’s boundaries.

To read more about Texas homeless liasons’ experiences, read the results of the TNOYS survey here.
To read more about Texas homeless liasons’ experiences, read the results of the TNOYS survey here.

School districts and charter schools are also required to designate homeless liaisons to identify homeless students and facilitate their enrollment and school attendance.  School liaisons report being underfunded and frequently having to juggle these responsibilities with other tasks.

In the 2015-16 school year, from the U.S. Department of Education, which the TEA distributed to school districts through a competitive sub-grant process.

  • Each year , or roughly 10 percent of the total school districts in the state. Many more districts serve homeless students.

In addition, all school districts and charter schools receiving Title I, Part A funds under the Every Student Succeeds Act are required to set aside some of this money to serve students who are homeless.

  • The federal has reported that schools have a disincentive for identifying students as homeless due to the costs associated with meeting their needs.

While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does not play a role in funding or overseeing educational requirements for youth experiencing homelessness, HUD does require that Continuum of Care entities demonstrate that they are helping identify students, linking these students to services, and encouraging their enrollment in schools. However, lack of oversight and technical assistance from HUD limits the impact of these requirements.

The Texas Education Code entitles students who are homeless to many of the same educational rights afforded by the federal McKinney-Vento Act and more.  For example:

  • A homeless student’s to his or her new school (if applicable) within 10 working days.
  • Partial credit must be provided to students experiencing homelessness who change schools during the school year.
  • must be provided to students who are homeless.
  • A student who is homeless is also entitled to admission in any Texas school district.

Significantly, the State of Texas does not appropriate state funds specifically to educate homeless children and youth, or to comply with state or federal mandates to serve this population.

We know we have a lot of homeless unaccompanied youth, but they don’t self-identify so we’re having difficulty identifying those [kids].  We know they’re there, but we’re not getting them…There’s a stigma attached to homelessness…A lot of times these kids are on their own so they’re not going to identify because they don’t want to be picked up by CPS.  They don’t want any outside intervention.

— ISD Homeless Liaison

Summation & Findings

Irrespective of their being without a secure home, many students continue to attend school—making the education system a critical player in identifying youth who are homeless and connecting them with support services.  These findings point to the funding and policy gaps that create barriers to serving this population:

Finding:  While the number of students identified as homeless in Texas has grown over the last four school years, the high percentage of districts in Texas that did not identify any homeless students suggests barriers to identification may still exist —including inadequate funding to provide mandated services to homeless students.

Finding:  Schools are an important resource in identifying young people experiencing homelessness and connecting them with outside services and supports, yet few are participating in “point-in-time” counts, an important process for determining how many young people need access to supports and services provided by entities outside the school setting.   

Finding:  Homeless liaisons in Texas school districts are not always adequately resourced, particularly given the breadth of tasks they perform and the importance of their role, and many have to divide their time between competing duties.

Finding:  Texas students who are homeless experience poor academic outcomes and are significantly more likely than their peers to repeat a grade or drop out of school—with Black and special education students overrepresented in this cohort.

Finding:  Texas students who are homeless are experiencing exclusionary discipline at disproportionate rates—with the majority of referrals for low-level code of conduct violations rather than for behavior that poses a safety threat.

Youth Homelessness & the Juvenile or Criminal Justice Systems

Youth homelessness intersects the juvenile or criminal justice systems in several ways.  A prior conviction, even a misdemeanor, can make renting an apartment difficult—and poor transition planning for life after foster care, or upon leaving a juvenile facility or lock-up, can make it much harder for a young person to secure stable housing.

Listen to this description of the way a parent’s criminal justice system involvement can lead to youth homelessness.

This report is particularly focused, however, on what is sometimes referred to as the “criminalization” of homelessness—when running away from home or a foster care placement or when actions linked to lack of secure housing (curfew violations, panhandling, camping) may be punished as violations of the law.

Because being homeless also increases a young person’s risk of becoming a victim of crime—it is critical to change the ways in which city ordinances, law enforcement, and the juvenile and criminal justice system contribute, however unwittingly, to the challenge of homelessness.

Crime Data Tell the Story

More than half of homeless youth reported being arrested at some point.

-and almost 33% of young people participating in Youth Count Texas! reported legal problems or a prior conviction.

Young people who are homeless .

One survey of youth found that while living on the streets.

Data from Youth Count Texas! indicate 34% of youth had experienced child abuse or neglect, 23% had experienced sexual assault, and almost 17% had been a victim of physical or sexual assault on the streets.

About one in five of nearly 1,000 youth recently interviewed in 13 cities across the U.S. and Canada reported being victims of trafficking.

Of those, 95% had a history of child abuse or neglect, and 63% had been involved with the child welfare system.

Service providers note that those under 18 are particularly vulnerable, because traffickers know that minors cannot access services without providers notifying Child Protective Services, something that these young people want to avoid.

People were like, “Baby girl, you don’t have it? I can get your nails done.  I can get you a car.  All you gotta do is love me and be with me.  Be my baby girl.”

  — C.J., Houston youth

When Running Away is Criminalized

Youth who are homeless have often run away from either a foster care placement or the home of a parent or guardian.  In Texas, law enforcement’s handling of recovered runaway minors varies from county to county.  In some counties, if they are not , they are taken to a juvenile detention center, and the local juvenile probation department determines next steps.  Others make use of an if available. These data on runaway youth are concerning:

* Nearly 6,000 children (ages 10 to 16) and more than 450 17-year-olds were arrested in 2015 for running away.

* Each year in Texas, around system for having run away.

* About in Texas in 2016.

  • While children reported missing may include youth who were abducted or lost, 90 percent are runaways.
  • Research shows that 77% of runaway youth return (or are returned) within a week; 15% are gone for one to four weeks; and 7% are missing for more than a month.

Young people in Texas under the age of 17 are considered “juveniles” by the and are not prosecuted criminally.  Instead, they are referred to juvenile probation departments and may be civilly adjudicated for “delinquent conduct,” or are referred for  (CINS offenses) in juvenile court.  CINS offenses, also referred to as status offenses, are offenses only by virtue of the child’s status as a minor.  In Texas, .

I had left my house, and they got me for being a runaway.  I was very shocked at how strict..the [punishments] were for being a runaway…I was in a detention facility for two months, and my mom wouldn’t get me out.  So then I went to a placement facility out in Bryan, Texas.  I did my year of probation out there.

  — C.F., Houston youth

The number of runaway referrals to juvenile probation departments is not driven by youth population ().  For example, Harris County has a higher child population, but Dallas County has a higher number of referrals for runaways.

Top 15 Counties with the Highest Total Runaway Referrals to Probation and Total Runaway Youth Referred to Probation, Ranked by Total Referrals (Fiscal Year 2015)

[1]National Center for Health Statistics (2017). Vintage 2016 postcensal estimates of the resident population of the United States (April 1, 2010, July 1, 2010-July 1, 2016), by year, county, single-year of age (0, 1, 2, .., 85 years and over), bridged race, Hispanic origin, and sex. Prepared under a collaborative arrangement with the U.S. Census Bureau. Available online from as of June 26, 2017, following release by the U.S. Census Bureau of the unbridged Vintage 2016 postcensal estimates by 5-year age groups. [Retrieved 7/8/2017]
[1]National Center for Health Statistics (2017). Vintage 2016 postcensal estimates of the resident population of the United States (April 1, 2010, July 1, 2010-July 1, 2016), by year, county, single-year of age (0, 1, 2, .., 85 years and over), bridged race, Hispanic origin, and sex. Prepared under a collaborative arrangement with the U.S. Census Bureau. Available online from as of June 26, 2017, following release by the U.S. Census Bureau of the unbridged Vintage 2016 postcensal estimates by 5-year age groups. [Retrieved 7/8/2017]
  • While urban counties tend to have the highest numbers of runaway referrals, some suburban and rural counties have a comparatively high given their child population.
  • The six Texas counties with the highest rate of runaway referrals are Brazos, Hockley, Gray, McLennan, Howard, and Ward.
  • The six Texas counties with the largest number of youth reported missing in 2016 are: Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Travis, Tarrant, and Hidalgo.

Studies indicate that many more young people run away than are reported missing to law enforcement.

Of the parents or caretakers who did not report the youth missing, most indicated they either knew where the child was, did not think the police were needed, or the child was not gone long enough to make a report.

The demographics of runaway youth in FY 2015 in the 15 Texas counties with 50 or more runaways referred to juvenile probation found: an average age of 15; a majority enrolled in school (73.7%); and police as the overwhelming source of the referrals (97%).  Girls are overrepresented among Texas runaways, particularly Hispanic girls.  Black youth of both genders were overrepresented among youth referred to juvenile probation for running away.

For a national perspective on the intersection between juvenile justice and youth homelessness, see this project from the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.
For a national perspective on the intersection between juvenile justice and youth homelessness, see this project from the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

Interviews with police officers reveal their need and desire for specialized training to make them more aware of issues surrounding homelessness and to sensitize them to the trauma histories that may affect youth’s behavior and responses to police officers.

Secure Detention of Runaways

While federal law for runaways, there are exceptions for youth who are charged with violation of a valid court order (the “VCO” exception).  A VCO exception can apply if a one-time runaway on probation gets into trouble at school, stays out past city-imposed curfews, or runs away again—potentially leading to their being detained in a secure juvenile facility.

It is important to note that most young people who run away are not simultaneously committing serious crimes, even when they are charged with something other than a status offense.  The vast majority of additional charges are additional runaway violations, VCOs (which could stem from the runaway charge itself), and misdemeanor crimes that rarely warrant detention.

It is also true that some Texas counties use detention for runaways more often than others.

Top 15 Counties with the Highest Number of Runaway Youth Detained, Ranked by Count (Fiscal Year 2015)

*Percentage calculated out of total youth detained
*Percentage calculated out of total youth detained

Of these 15 counties (see above chart), the five with the highest number of youth staying in detention for two or more days are McLennon (46), Hidalgo (19), Harris (16), Bexar (15), and El Paso (10).

The low percentage of these cases requiring prosecution in any one year indicates that these cases could be safely addressed outside the juvenile system.  Of the , 1,983 resulted in a supervisory caution, and 493 had their cases dismissed by juvenile probation.  In fact – a mere 8 percent of these cases were sent to court.

Transition Out of the Juvenile or Criminal Justice System

When a youth is ready to leave either a county probation juvenile facility, or a state secure facility run by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD), .  This can also lead to youth being held in secure facilities longer.

Though we do not know how many children, statewide, are unable to return home after being in a county juvenile facility, our interviews with stakeholders suggest that it is a common problem.  We do know that in FY 2015, DFPS indicated that an indicator that a parent refused to allow a child to return after he or she was out of the home for some reason.  It is reasonable to assume that many of these youth were transitioning out of a juvenile facility.

While TJJD offers youth who cannot return home from a state secure facility a subsidy to support living expenses, the program is rarely utilized.  In 2015, only 17 youth were enrolled in the “Subsidized Living Support Program.”  This is likely because the eligibility requirements make it difficult for youth to qualify.  For example, complete an independent living preparation curriculum and have enough personal savings to pay all deposits and the first month’s rent for an apartment.

County & Municipal Curfew Ordinances

Some Texas counties and municipalities have created an additional status offense not named in state law: violation of a day or nighttime curfew.  Curfew ordinances prohibit young people from being in public places during certain hours—and violating them can push homeless youth into the court system.  

Despite the fact that curfew violations are status offenses that only apply to children, they are in adult criminal courts in Texas.

  • In FY 2015, through Texas courts—the majority in municipal courts, since they are violations of a municipal ordinance.

Top 10 Cities for Prosecution of Juvenile “Violation of Local Daytime Curfew” Cases (Fiscal Year 2015)

           *Municipal courts by city
           *Municipal courts by city
  • Young people may be fined up to $500 for a curfew violation and, if convicted, will have a criminal record.

Survival Behavior & Criminalization of Homelessness—Ages 17 & Older

in the eyes of the Texas Penal Code and are not subject to Family Code provisions related to running away or municipal codes regarding curfew.

Older youth who are homeless may be subject to criminal prosecution for camping, sitting or lying on a public sidewalk, panhandling, or Texas Penal Code violations like theft or trespass.  More than 200 young people ages 17 to 24 according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Summation & Findings

Too often, homeless youth commit minor offenses that introduce them to the juvenile justice system; however, being involved in the justice system also pushes young people into becoming homeless.  Effective policy solutions must take this into account.

Finding: Homelessness carries increased risks of victimization for youth, including heightened risks of human trafficking.

Finding: Young people who are picked up by law enforcement after running away from home are met by varying responses, depending on the county where they are found.  In some counties, youth are detained, despite federal law prohibiting use of detention for runaways.

Finding: The high number of youth in Texas who run away from home more than once shows that the current response is ineffective.  Young people who run away from home are often running from abuse, neglect, or family conflict and need a therapeutic, rather than court-based, response.

Finding: Symptoms and survival behavior associated with youth homelessness is criminalized, leading to a cycle of juvenile or criminal justice system involvement that does little to meet the needs of youth and instead serves to perpetuate homelessness.

Finding: The transition out of a juvenile secure facility is a point at which youth are at risk of homelessness, if their family is not willing or able to welcome them back home.

Youth Homelessness & the Foster Care System

As is true of the juvenile justice system, the foster care system intersects with youth homelessness at several junctures.  First, runaways who are not able to be returned home immediately may ultimately be placed in the state’s care for a longer term if an investigation substantiates concerns surrounding abuse or neglect. As discussed in the last chapter, in some counties, runaways are taken directly to emergency shelters instead of being referred to the juvenile system – but in many places, they are first detained in a juvenile facility. And, as discussed, some young people who are released from the juvenile system are abandoned at that point by family and referred to DFPS when a family member refuses to pick them up.

But, in addition to responding to runaway and abandoned youth, the foster care system (like the juvenile and criminal justice systems) may also contribute to their number.  Even under the best circumstances, foster care placements sometimes result in a youth running away.  But in Texas, the foster care system has been under considerable strain with too few appropriate placement options and high caseworker turnover.  Problems within the foster care system can contribute to youth running away from placements for a variety of reasons.

In addition, every year around 1,000 Texas youth “age out” of the foster care system on their 18th birthday.  that these young people are at heightened risk of homelessness.  Many of the young people we interviewed during our research had aged out of the Texas foster care system.  Many said they opted not to extend care beyond age 18 because they had such a bad experience in foster care.  While DFPS is a line of defense against youth homelessness – systemic problems within foster care may also contribute to the problem of homelessness.

Foster Youth Runaways

Youth in foster care may encounter temporary or longer-term homelessness if they run away.  In FY 2016, , however DFPS acknowledges that its case management system does not easily track runaways or those who are found and returned to care.

  • In FY 2016, it took an average of six weeks to locate runaways from foster care placements.
  • Most youth ran from an closely followed by foster homes for children with emotional disorders, and residential treatment centers.

In 2015, on a daily basis.

Of the 1,068 youth who ran away from a foster care placement in FY 2016:

  • 306 ran away more than once;
  • The highest number ran from placements in Bexar, Harris, and Dallas counties.

Running from foster care is not unique to Texas.  A found that youth who had been in foster care are over three times more likely to run away from home than youth who had never lived in a foster home.  The study also found that verbal, physical, and sexual abuse before the age of 18 were all correlated with a higher runaway rate.

Interviews with homeless youth and service providers revealed that Child Protective Services (CPS) does not place a priority on finding runaway youth ages 17 and older—and they are essentially “on their own.”

I got off the bus, and I started walking. I had no idea where I was going.  I had no idea where I was.  I was in some random town at the time.  I didn’t care where I was.  All I cared about was that I was safe.  In my eyes, that’s all I cared about.  The fact that I was safe.

  — R.G., Austin youth (on running away from foster care)

Foster Care & the Juvenile Justice System

Foster youth who run from a placement are at risk of juvenile justice involvement, or criminalization related to the symptoms of homelessness, as discussed in the previous chapter.  According to national estimates, as many as 30% of youth involved with the child welfare system are involved with the juvenile justice system.

on youth who have been involved in both the foster care and justice systems to determine how many Texas youth are dually involved.   However, in the Youth in Transition Database—show that 36% of the surveyed foster youth had been “incarcerated” at some point, which underestimates the percentage intersecting the justice system, since not all will spend time in jail or prison.

Aging Out of Foster Care — Increased Risk for Homelessness

In Texas, nearly 1,200 youth age out of the foster care system every year.    Aging out of foster care is linked to a higher risk of becoming homeless.

While there is funding for support services to youth who age out of foster care, there are barriers to accessing these resources.  Congress passed the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Act in 1999   Federal funding for support services flows from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) to its state agency counterpart, DFPS.  But collected in Texas as a condition of receiving Chafee grants underscores that this funding may not be stemming the tide of foster youth who find themselves homeless after aging out:

  • Among the first group of 17-year-olds surveyed, 16% reported being homeless at some point prior to aging out of care.
  • By the time they were 19 years old, 25% of this group reported being homeless in the two years since they had aged out of care, which is higher than the .
  • Two years later, within the previous two years.

Before a young person ages out of foster care in Texas, DFPS is required to provide life skills training and to promote their developing contacts with supportive adults who can be a resource after aging out through Circles of Support (COS) meetings.  Unfortunately, due to lack of resources and available caseworkers, prior to aging out, with little follow up to ensure that goals are met.

If a youth ages out of foster care and they’re not connected to a foster family or at least one significant caring adult, it’s a cliff. There are no resources for them, and they don’t have a lot of support.  Unfortunately, too many of them end up homeless or in jail.

  — Houston service provider

Homeless youth interviewed for this report also were critical of life skills courses offered through the foster care system—saying more life skills training is needed and should start as early as age 14.  Six classes— “Preparation for Adult Living” (PAL) — are offered to 16-year-olds to teach skills in core areas like job readiness, financial management, and housing.  Foster youth must complete all six classes to qualify for a “transitional living allowance” upon aging out, which provides up to $1,000 for rent or other costs associated with independent living.

Recent suggests that courses like PAL are not an effective way to teach life skills to young people.  Instead, intensive case management that is individualized to ensure a successful transition from foster care to independent living.

As one homeless young person said, “We need more help.  A lot more help.  Years of help.  Start at 14 and 15.  Help us get through it.

Frequent moves, scheduling conflicts, and lack of transportation make it difficult for foster youth to complete six PAL classes in the 12 months before aging out of care.

Summation & Findings

The state’s foster care system aims to protect children from abusive and neglectful home situations and to offer a safety net against homelessness.  Yet funding shortages, staff turnover, and policy gaps put young people aging out of foster care system at a severe disadvantage.

Policymakers, funders, and service providers need to address the family disruptions and crises that pull youth into foster care unnecessarily, remove barriers to sheltering homeless youth, and better prepare foster youth to live as independent adults.

Finding:  the number of youth who run from foster care placements.

Finding: Too many foster youth run from care in Texas, with some running more than once.  More should be done to ensure placement stability and prevent foster youth from running from care.

Finding: The average length of time a runaway youth is out of care (six weeks) leaves youth highly vulnerable to victimization and trafficking.  

Finding: Too many foster youth who age out of care age out into homelessness, indicating these young people are not prepared for adulthood.

Finding: DFPS’s “Supportive Independent Living Program” (SIL) is woefully underutilized, principally due to low reimbursement rates.

Finding: While the number of youth extending foster care beyond the age of 18 has increased, the average length youth stay in extended care is only 12 months.  Youth often leave prior to turning 21, abandoning support and services that could assist them in preparing for adult living.

Finding:  Foster youth who come into contact with the juvenile or criminal justice systems are at heightened risk for becoming homeless.

Youth Homelessness and Access to Physical & Behavioral Health Services

The hardest part was the physical toll it takes on your body because while your mental condition can be in a stable place — you’re not completely wrecked and depressed — you’re still living on the streets.  You don’t have a consistent way to stay clean.  You don’t have a consistent way to stay fed.  And you’re living on the streets so you’re subject to a lot of sicknesses, scars and bites.  The physical toll was almost unbearable.             

— C.F., Houston youth

Youth who are homeless are one of the most underserved and vulnerable populations in the U.S. when it comes to health care.  Many of these young people are not aware of available health services or how to access them—a complex, challenging process at best.

The changes inherent to adolescence, combined with the stresses of housing instability and a likely precarious family history, create a unique set of physical and mental health care challenges.  Many youth —including a physical disability, hospital discharge, mental illness, and substance abuse.

Easily remedied health issues can become major problems and more costly to treat without early access to care.  A case of mild dehydration can turn into an emergency case of heat stroke.  Keeping diabetes and asthma under control become more difficult without access to medication or a place to store it.  Living in crowded conditions or on the street exposes young people to communicable disease (tuberculosis and respiratory illnesses), stress, violence, and malnutrition. When they are so sick they are forced to seek help, youth who are homeless often turn to an emergency room.

In many instances, dispensing health care to a minor requires the consent of a parent or guardian—making it difficult, if not impossible, for a youth experiencing homelessness to get medical care.

Youth interviewed for this report and 20.6% of those surveyed for Youth Count Texas! identified dental care as a major unmet health care need.  Other needs identified by survey respondents include: hygiene supplies, 17.1%; showers and restrooms, 10.7%; emergency food, 18.7%; and routine medical care, 10.8%.  Among surveyed youth, 15% were pregnant and 31.8% already had a child—but barriers exist to their receiving prenatal care and medical attention for their children.

Behavioral / Mental Health

The faced by youth experiencing homelessness are depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal behaviors.

Trauma can have a more significant effect on brain development than poverty does.  Leading underscore the need to focus on “trauma-informed care” provided by the very systems—schools, foster care, and juvenile and criminal justice—that most frequently come into contact with youth who are at risk of becoming homeless or who already are homeless.

I think people don’t realize how high the prevalence of past trauma and abuse is among homeless youth.  I think some people believe, just like with adult homelessness, that it’s a moral failing. It’s something they did wrong rather than something that happened to them.  Along with the lack of understanding about having experienced trauma, people don’t understand the effects of trauma on the brain and  their ability to cope and so forth.

  — Austin service provider

A large percentage of this population abuses alcohol and drugs to self-medicate against stress and trauma, to feed an addiction, or to support themselves on the street.  It is not surprising that substance abuse contributes and/or co-exists with unaddressed mental health problems.  Data show the following:

  • Substance abuse rates for youth who are homeless can vary anywhere from 28% to 81%, according to , and co-occurring mental health problems are common.  
For more on improving behavioral health for youth experiencing homelessness, check out this report from TNOYS.
For more on improving behavioral health for youth experiencing homelessness, check out this report from TNOYS.
  • Nearly 47% of surveyed Texas youth who are homeless have experienced alcohol abuse or addiction, according to Youth Count Texas!
  • Youth who are homeless that identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are at a greater risk of major psychiatric disorders and substance abuse than heterosexual homeless youth, according to the .
  • Drug abuse among homeless youth may also be linked to the overprescribing of psychotropic drugs in the foster care system.  

Barriers to Health Care Services for Youth who are Homeless

Youth experiencing homelessness over-rely on emergency room care because they have difficulty accessing care through community health sites serving low-income patients.  Health care research organization ECHO (Ending Community Homeless Coalition) found that:

  • 62 percent of surveyed homeless youth report visiting the emergency room in the prior six months;
  • 40 percent had been taken to a hospital, and 27 percent had been hospitalized.

According to ECHO, their overreliance on emergency rooms is due to lack of health insurance, inability to recognize and address health problems early, and their having few health service options. Lack of transportation, parental consent requirements, and other program eligibility criteria also make it difficult for youth who are homeless to find the health care they need.  For example:

  • Under the national Health Care for the Homeless Program created in 1985, community-based organizations across the country serve low-income populations with limited access to health care. There are 10 locations in Texas.  However, youth have a difficult time accessing care because parental consent is required.
  • A can “provide comprehensive home and community-based mental health services to children ages three to 18, up to a month before a teen’s 19th birthday, who have a serious emotional disturbance.”  However, the or be legally emancipated to receive services creates a barrier for youth who are homeless.
  • Being homeless a child or young adult for Medicaid or for Texas’ statewide (managed care Medicaid) to cover health care costs.

In Texas, Medicaid covers 2.59 million low-income children, and children account for 70.5% of those on Medicaid in Texas.

According to Texas Health and Human Services data, there are nearly 700,000 children under 18 who are uninsured in Texas, and 89.8% of them are eligible for Medicaid or CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) but are not enrolled.

Foster youth can qualify for Medicaid and to cover health care costs for several years after aging out at 18 (with different criteria determining scope of benefits)—but it is highly likely that homeless young people are among those eligible but not enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP.

  • Purchasing subsidized health insurance on the Affordable Care Act exchange is too costly for homeless young people.
  • While it is possible for youth who are homeless to access local health care options in some Texas communities—as well as food programs, their transient lifestyle, lack of transportation and documentation, and the complexity of the application process create major barriers.

The complexity around Texas’ laws on consent, confidentiality, and access to medical records (see full report) also create obstacles to youth obtaining physical and behavioral health care services.

Summation & Findings

Navigating physical and mental health care services, the complex eligibility criteria, application process, and insurance can be difficult even for those with plenty of resources and support.

To extend care to this vulnerable population of youth experiencing homelessness, state and federal policymakers will need to explore out-of-the-box ways to deliver care “where they are” and to recalibrate the balance between youth autonomy, youth safety, and parental prerogative.

Finding: Trauma looms large in the lives of youth who are homeless, making them hesitant to seek out help from unknown adults and complex health care systems.

Finding:  Minor consent laws are confusing, or unnecessarily complicated.

Finding:  Economic barriers prevent youth from obtaining health care.

Services & Supports for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

A continuum of quality services to help youth experiencing homelessness is central to meeting their immediate and future needs. Services must all be tailored to the individual circumstances of the youth they are designed to help and should be executed with a Positive Youth Development approach in mind. Services should also be trauma-informed and culturally competent.

This chapter outlines a number of recommended approaches and models for addressing youth homelessness, all of which are based on research. Some lend themselves to specific programs and services, some are more process-oriented, while others are a set of general principles. These recommendations are not mutually exclusive and may be bolstered when implemented in concert with one another. In our full report [LINK to PDF], we highlight best practices within each of these models.

This chapter also covers special populations in need of consideration and existing programs within Texas that assist with homelessness. Most of the state’s programs are also research-based. Finally, the chapter discusses federal, state, and local funding for services for youth experiencing homelessness in Texas.

The Frameworks and Program Models that Work

  • Collective Impact: Collective Impact stems from the idea that large-scale change requires cross-sector collaboration. In this model, a diverse group of stakeholders comes together with a shared vision for change. Working as a collective, stakeholders minimize gaps in policies and programs while building the community’s capacity to provide services.
  • Continuum of Services: This model helps assure that young people who are homeless do not fall between the cracks, as it guides and tracks them along a comprehensive set of services as they progress toward stability. The model is particularly apt for addressing the issue of youth homelessness because it emphasizes access to a full spectrum of services, which can meet the needs of youth with differing circumstances.
  • Family Strengthening & Reunification: Acknowledging that today’s society does not expect the average young person to support himself or herself until they reach a certain age – and that parental support is expected – this framework places high value in the family unit and works to strengthen that family unit when possible. Family strengthening and reunification efforts aim to improve relationships between youth and their families to help young people stay or return home.
  • Housing First: The Housing First model holds that the first step to serving homeless populations should be to provide them with stable places to live. The model diverges from other approaches to addressing homelessness in that it sets no preconditions for those seeking help. Many housing programs, particularly residential initiatives, require that clients first receive substance abuse counseling or participate in some other program before being placed. Proponents of Housing First often point out that offering immediate permanent housing to those living on the street is not only more humane than just offering temporary shelter or another comparable arrangement, but it is also more cost-effective for society.
  • Trauma-Informed Care: With differing circumstances at play resulting in a young person’s homelessness – from family issues to economic hardship to neglect – it is imperative that service providers use trauma-informed methods when working with homeless young people. Trauma-Informed Care is
  • Youth Development: The Interagency Work Group on Youth Programs describes positive youth development as “an intentional, prosocial approach that engages youth within their communities, schools, organizations, peer groups, and families in a manner that is productive and constructive; recognizes, utilizes, and enhances young people’s strengths; and promotes positive outcomes for young people by providing opportunities, fostering positive relationships, and furnishing the support needed to build on their leadership strengths.”

Top Three Categories of Programs and Services

A range of programs and services can be implemented within the frameworks highlighted earlier. With some overlap, they generally fit into three categories that are listed in the following table:

[1] “Clinical Model” (ND), webpage. Accessed September 9, 2017: [2] Ibid.

Special Populations at High Risk for Negative Outcomes

Certain populations of youth experiencing homelessness are at a greater risk for negative outcomes. By being aware of the experiences and backgrounds of these populations, service providers can work with the young person to design appropriate, inclusive, and supportive programs to meet their needs. Some groups are overrepresented in the homeless youth population, including foster system-involved youth and LGBTQ youth. Our full report [LINK to PDF] explores characteristics of these high-risk groups and provides best practices for engagement.

  • Youth with Histories of Foster Care Involvement
  • Gang-Affiliated Youth
  • Human Trafficking Victims
  • Immigrant, Undocumented, and Refugee Youth
  • LGBTQ Youth
  • Native Populations
  • Pregnant and Parenting Youth
  • Youth in Rural Areas
  • Youth Under Age 18

People tell me not to think about the future, just to think about today. But you can’t do that when you have kids, because in the future, you don’t know if you’re going to be homeless. You don’t know if something will happen, and you have both of your kids on the street with you. You have to think about things like that.             — H.H., Dallas youth

Legislation Influencing Programs, Services & Data Collection

There is no single piece of legislation or single agency at the federal or state level that comprehensively directs and manages regulations and resources aimed at addressing the issues of youth homelessness. There are instead multiple pieces of legislation and multiple agencies, at both the federal and state levels, that are connected to the issue. This dynamic creates challenges for coordinating policies, programs, and services; it also produces ambiguity about stakeholder roles and accountability.

Major Federal Legislation | Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (1974) – The federal Family and Youth Services Bureau within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families is responsible for distributing funding and technical assistance services related to Runaway and Homeless Youth Act programs, which is earmarked for direct services for homeless young people, through basic center, transitional living, and street outreach programs.

Major Federal Legislation | McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (1987) – This funding strictly applies to supporting educational access and related rights for homeless students in K-12 public schools and is administered by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, depending on which agency’s definition of homelessness is being used and whether services are related to schooling or housing.

State Legislation | HB 679 (2015) – The 84th Texas Legislature required the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, in conjunction with the Texas Interagency Council for the Homeless, to conduct a study (published December 1, 2016) of youth homelessness in Texas and submit a report to the legislature outlining its findings and recommendations.

Regulation Conflicts

There is no consensus about what situation qualifies as “homeless,” with irregular and competing definitions causing confusion. Because multiple agencies work on this issue, it has led to varied eligibility criteria – creating more challenges.

If you’re dealing with the ISD, their definition of homeless is different than HUD’s definition of homeless, which might be different than a privately-funded housing program’s definition of homeless. And so everybody’s on a different page, and that’s challenging.

  — DFW service provider

Where’s the Money?

Dollars in prevention would be a really wonderful, refreshing thing.

  — Austin judge

The federal government is the primary funding source for programs devoted to youth homelessness.

Direct Federal Funding Sources for Services to Address Youth Homelessness

Funding Available through the State of Texas

While there are a handful of state-level funding streams and programs that aim to prevent youth homelessness, there are no funding streams or programs specifically devoted to serving youth experiencing homelessness.

[1] TDHCA, “Homeless Housing and Services Program (HHSP)” (ND), webpage. Accessed 8/23/17: [2] Based on calls I made to providers and local governments in each city that gets HHSP funds                        

Local/Private Funding

Because federal and state funding streams for homeless youth are insufficient, most service providers rely on private funding to support youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. Service providers may also receive funding through their city or county, often via Community Development Block Grants or Community Services Block Grants, but such funding varies from place to place. In Austin there is an organization called the Religious Coalition to Assist the Homeless, which was created by an Austin City Council ordinance passed in 1996. Congregations from across the city pool resources that would otherwise go to city drainage fees (that are waived) to support emergency shelter beds, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, and the services for the formerly homeless. Some of these funds support services for homeless youth and young adults in Austin.

Summation & Findings

Despite recent increased federal and state-level interest in understanding the needs of youth experiencing homelessness, there is still significant work needed in order to ensure availability and sustainability of a full continuum of services across Texas. The following findings and recommendations identify opportunities for policymakers to better support this vulnerable but resilient population.

Finding: Lack of funding has severely restricted the development and sustainability of a robust continuum of services to address youth homelessness. As a result, Texas lacks a clear and sustainable continuum of services that are appropriate for youth who are homeless or at-risk.

Finding: There are some strong programs in place in Texas to support services for youth who age out of foster care. These programs are under-funded. Furthermore, homeless youth, who may have similar histories of abuse, neglect, and trauma, and who may be without a parent or legal guardian, are not eligible for many of these services.

Finding: It is unclear at both the state and federal levels who is responsible for addressing youth homelessness. This ambiguity has resulted in a lack of leadership and accountability, conflicting regulations and expectations, and other challenges that have limited the success of strategies to end youth homelessness.

Finding: There is significant research available on best practices for serving young people experiencing homelessness. There are also many promising and innovative nonprofit programs serving youth who are homeless in Texas. Additionally, communities in Texas and across the country have the opportunity to learn even more about best practices for serving youth who are homeless through HUD’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program.

Conclusion & Cross-System Policy Recommendations

While each chapter’s focus leads to a specific set of findings and recommendations, when we pull back and consider the data and research as a whole, we find several themes.  Based on the cross-system data we were able to analyze for this report, there is simply no question that homelessness is a significant problem impacting Texas’ youth.  While we need more and better data, the data is not needed to make the case that too many young Texans experience homelessness – rather, the data are important in helping us understand the best way to reach homeless youth and develop appropriate prevention and intervention strategies.

It is also clear that youth homelessness is not simply an economic or housing issue, but is often a family issue.  When a 15-year-old is on the streets, the problem is not caused by a lack of affordable housing – but more likely a familial issue.  While Texas has a prevention infrastructure in place, the state is not capitalizing on opportunities to prevent youth homelessness by ensuring that the problems that result in a youth running or getting pushed out of a home are addressed before conflict or crisis results in homelessness.  At the federal level, though the recent push to make the Department of Housing and Urban Development responsible for leading the charge to address youth homelessness looks promising in terms of the potential to bring new resources and housing supports for youth, it is critical that child welfare stakeholders maintain engaged in the provision of services and planning and decision-making processes. The issue of youth homelessness will not be addressed with housing alone.

Our cross-systems analysis also shows that youth homelessness touches many systems, including education, child welfare, juvenile justice, and health and mental health.  Solutions should draw upon the strengths of each system, while recognizing their shortfalls.  For example, schools are uniquely positioned to identify students who are homeless or at-risk and to serve as a resource for youth experiencing homelessness – and capacity should be commensurate with the potential for the benefits this system offers.  Many of the young people we interviewed had positive school experiences, and data overwhelmingly show that youth who ran away were still in school before they left home, and that many unaccompanied youth continue to attend school even after they become homeless.

Over the course of our research, it struck us that whether or not a homeless youth enters the child welfare or juvenile justice system seems arbitrary, and may often depend on where the youth lives, and on local priorities and capacity.  Yet, while each system carries risks for poor outcomes, each also offers benefits.  While system involvement may not be the first or best option, there are beneficial elements of each that could be replicated in policy solutions for youth experiencing homelessness in programs outside the CPS and juvenile systems. For example, although the child welfare system has major flaws that contribute to homelessness among young people who age out of foster care, it also offers critical supports that may be of value to young people who are homeless and who have experienced similar abuse, neglect, and other trauma but who are not system-involved.

We were also struck by the lack of ownership, accountability, and strategic coordination among state government agencies and stakeholders for addressing youth homelessness.  As a result, despite best efforts among nonprofit providers, Texas lacks an effective and sustainable continuum of services for homeless youth.  There is no state agency responsible for youth who are homeless in Texas and no agency that has stepped into the role.  In contrast, at the federal level, both the child welfare and housing agencies have taken leadership roles.

Although a number of government agencies at the federal level are demonstrating interest in addressing the issue of youth homelessness, that coordination is not without its limitations or challenges. For example, the failure to agree on a consistent definition of youth homelessness compounds problems associated with lack of ownership.

Finally, the glaring problem that we saw across systems is that services are severely and consistently underfunded.  Texas does not dedicate any state funding to meet the needs of unaccompanied homeless youth.  Federal funding is insufficient and with the exception of extemely limted RHY funding, has not traditionally been designed to meet youths’ needs.  Existing funding is disjointed, which results in disjointed services for youth.  Yet, the costs of not intervening are high: child welfare, juvenile justice, and emergency rooms are expensive.  Prevention and community-based alternatives are a more effective and less costly alternative.

Overarching Policy Recommendations

While each chapter addresses recommendations consistent with the chapter’s focus, there are a number of cross-system recommendations that emerge, based on the conclusions discussed above.

Policy Recommendation: Texas that is jointly led by DFPS and TDHCA, and specifically charged with:

  • identifying funding strategies and opportunities to support and sustain a full continuum of quality services for young people who are experiencing homelessness and who are at risk;
  • identifying and finding solutions to address issues in child-serving systems that may operate to push young people into homelessness or place them at higher risk of homelessness;
  • identifying and building upon the strengths of child-serving systems to address homelessness or youth who are at risk of homelessness.

Policy Recommendation: The Texas Legislature should create dedicated funding streams to support services for youth and young adults who are experiencing homelessness and/or who are at-risk within both the state child welfare and housing agencies. This proposed funding setup would mirror the federal funding landscape and reflect that youth homelessness is both a child welfare issue that involves the family and an affordable housing issue.

Some of these funding streams could be created by expanding programs that exist already. Texas should work to identify existing funding streams that may be able to fund services for youth who are homeless.

Policy Recommendation: The state should invest in strengthening prevention and early intervention services including family counseling services, and parenting skills. These services are proven to keep families together safely and prevent causes of youth homelessness, including running away and being kicked out.

Policy Recommendation: Texas should invest in initiatives that would raise public awareness about the services that exist, modeling a campaign after successful public health campaigns. Texas should also develop, frequently update, and make easily available a directory with information on services for young people who are homeless or at risk, including youth-appropriate shelter, street outreach, and transitional living services, as well as family crisis intervention services.

Policy Recommendation: Efforts addressing youth homelessness should include child welfare stakeholders, as well as stakeholders from other systems that can provide appropriate supports and services in keeping with the best practices outlined in this report.

Policy Recommendation: Benefits that serve to prevent homelessness for juvenile or CPS-involved youth, like SIL and education benefits, should be explored as potential models for meeting youth’s needs outside these systems in an effort to prevent homelessness.

Policy Recommendation: Youth-serving systems, including schools, should coordinate and cooperate in “point-in-time” counts that provide information about the extent and contributors of youth homelessness.

Policy Recommendations – Education & Youth Homelessness

Federal Government

Policy Recommendation: The federal government should provide more funding to support schools in complying with the McKinney-Vento Act (requiring districts to enroll and provide free transportation for students who lack a secure home) — so that lack of funding does not create a disincentive for schools to identify homeless students, who frequently do not self-identify due to stigma or shame.

Policy Recommendation: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) should reassure schools that participation in “point-in-time” counts of homeless student will not violate student privacy laws — and should align its definition of “homeless” with the McKinney-Vento education definition.

Policy Recommendation: HUD should more closely monitor Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act (HEARTH) requirements for Continuum of Care entities and project applicants to collaborate with schools, providing technical assistance where needed.

Policy Recommendation: The Administration of Children and Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, should require recipients of RHY (Runaway and Homeless Youth) Program grants to show they are collaborating with local school districts.

Policy Recommendation: The U.S. Department of Education should require school districts receiving Title I funding or McKinney-Vento sub-grants to show that they are collaborating with local service providers as a condition of funding.

Texas Legislature

Policy Recommendation: Texas should provide funding to school districts to supplement federal funds.  One possibility might be a funding weight for homeless students that would entitle districts to a higher level of funding, similar to that created for special education students.

Policy Recommendation: Alternatively, Texas should create a state funding stream to support homeless liaisons, school counselors, and other resources for homeless students, particularly for smaller districts that struggle to meet student’s needs.

  • As a first step, Texas could create state-funded grants for districts with the highest rate of homeless students, so that rural districts with high rates may be eligible even when they do not fall within the districts with the highest overall count of homeless students.

Policy Recommendation: Create incentives for youth to stay in school and work toward higher education goals, and find ways to eliminate barriers to higher education for homeless youth.  Several steps could be taken toward this goal:

  • Increase accessibility to the high school equivalency test by waiving or subsidizing the $145 fee for homeless youth.
  • Designate homeless liaisons at all public colleges and universities to create a much-needed support system for these high-risk students.
  • Consider waiving in-state tuition for youth identified by their school as homeless who have been accepted to a college or university but are unable to pay tuition.

Policy Recommendation: Eliminate suspension as a disciplinary option for homeless students, except in situations involving a threat to campus, student, or staff safety.

Texas Education Agency

Policy Recommendation: Reassure schools that participation in “point-in-time” counts of homeless students will not violate student privacy laws.

Policy Recommendation: Require school districts receiving Title I funding or McKinney-Vento sub-grants to show that they are collaborating with local service providers as a condition of funding.

Policy Recommendation: Alert school districts that have high rates of exclusionary discipline for homeless students, and provide funding to the Texas Homeless Education Office to provide technical assistance to districts in creating alternatives to traditional disciplinary models.

Texas Department of Family & Protective Services

Policy Recommendation: Require STAR providers (program in Texas through which most people get their Medicaid coverage) to show they are working with school districts to provide supports and services to homeless students.

School Districts & Schools

Policy Recommendation: Increase Title I set-asides for services to homeless students based on a needs assessment, done in consultation with the homeless liaisons, and make clear to schools that Title I set-asides are available to meet the needs of homeless students.

  • Districts should devote set aside funds to fund the homeless liaisons’ salary at the equivalent of an FTE if no other sources of funding are available for this salary.
  • Schools should make dropout prevention and tutoring resources available to homeless students, tapping into Title I set-asides where needed; if a student is living in a shelter and unable to stay after school for tutoring, schools should consider having tutors who are able to assist the students at the shelter.

Policy Recommendation: Train teachers and other school staff to identify signs and symptoms of homelessness and connect students with the homeless liaisons.

Policy Recommendation: Participate in “point-in-time” counts of homeless students to better inform policymakers’ understanding of their need for services.

Policy Recommendation: Districts should supplement existing information that Texas requires them to post on their websites about local programs and resources available to homeless students by mapping resources available within the community and district, updating these maps regularly, and making this information easily available to all homeless liaisons to ensure that it is not only publicly available but internally useful.

  • Districts and schools should consider inviting community-based service providers to make resources available while students are on campus, and reach out to and coordinate with the faith-based community for resources and volunteers.
  • Districts and schools should direct school counselors to work with homeless students approaching graduation to identify available funding and resources to support these students’ housing, educational, vocational, and other basic needs.

Policy Recommendation: Districts should implement alternatives to traditional disciplinary models that are trauma-informed and better support students’ behavioral needs.  Some examples are school-wide PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention & Supports), Social Emotional Learning, and Restorative Justice.

  • Schools should take into consideration whether a student’s homelessness or history of trauma contributed to a disciplinary infraction and, if that is the case, refer the student to supports or services rather than make a disciplinary referral.

Policy Recommendations: Youth Homelessness & the Juvenile or Criminal Justice Systems

Federal Government

Policy Recommendation: Eliminate the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception to the prohibition on the detention of status offenders, such as runaway youth.

Texas Legislature

Policy Recommendation: Clarify that youth cannot be sent to detention for a VCO where the underlying offense, on which the violation is predicated, is a runaway or other status offense.  [This is an interim step until Congress acts on the a previous policy recommendation related to the VCO exception — see Federal Government.]

Policy Recommendation: Prioritize preventing youth from encountering homelessness, recognizing that investing in prevention will save lives and state resources in the long term.

Policy Recommendation: Change to align with the prevailing understanding of minors, including 17-year-olds, as victims rather than perpetrators and divert them away from the juvenile or criminal justice system entirely.

Policy Recommendation: Continue to invest resources in protecting youth and helping them recover from human trafficking, creating an appropriate, trauma-informed continuum of care outside the juvenile justice system for youth who have been trafficked.

Policy Recommendation: Remove runaway cases from the juvenile system, instead responding through a child welfare lens and emphasizing trauma-informed, community-based family interventions and services; include schools as a partner in finding new solutions and approaches since many homeless students attend school.

Policy Recommendation: Work with service providers to explore the possibility of using Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funds to support programs for youth who have been victims of abuse or neglect, or who have been trafficked.

Texas Juvenile Justice Department & Juvenile Probation Departments

Policy Recommendation: Pending a change in law, TJJD should partner with DFPS and other agencies to identify appropriate alternatives to juvenile justice involvement for youth who run away from home and have not committed a more serious offense.

Policy Recommendation: TJJD and local probation departments should begin transition planning  immediately upon a youth’s entry to a secure facility — taking into consideration housing stability, foster care issues that complicate long-term stable housing, and the special needs of pregnant youth and those with children.

Policy Recommendation: Examine and eliminate eligibility barriers that keep homeless youth from accessing benefits through TJJD’s Subsidized Living Support Program.

Policy Recommendation: State and local juvenile justice officials should explore contracting with transitional living programs for youth exiting secure facilities who are not able to return home.

Policy Recommendation: Juvenile probation departments should identify and implement best practices for youth transitioning out of secure facilities who are not able to return home.  For older youth, models similar to transitional living programs (that assist youth in working toward a successful transition to adulthood) should be considered.

Policy Recommendation: TJJD and juvenile probation departments should consider providing services (including crisis intervention) to youth able to return home and their family to ease the transition back into the household and to prevent probation violations (like running away) and future homelessness.  

Texas Department of Family & Protective Services

Policy Recommendation: In partnership with other stakeholders, DFPS should conduct a review of STAR services and provider capacity to determine whether there are barriers to effectively utilizing the existing STAR program to address the needs of runaway youth.

  • If capacity is an issue, funding should be provided to ensure adequate resources, recognizing that an appropriate response has the dual purpose of preventing human trafficking and other forms of victimization, as well as other poor outcomes including academic failure and juvenile justice involvement.
  • Texas should work with service providers to explore the possibility of using Victims of Crimes Act (VOCA) funds to support programs for youth — including alternatives to justice system involvement — who have been victims of abuse or neglect, or who have been trafficked.

Policy Recommendation: DFPS should conduct a review of the emergency shelters in Texas that are able to take runaway placements and assess their capacity versus need.

Counties & Municipalities

Policy Recommendation: Review and eliminate ordinances, including juvenile curfew ordinances, that criminalize homeless youth.

Policy Recommendation: Prioritize connecting homeless youth with services and supports that meet their housing and other needs.

Law Enforcement

Policy Recommendation: Educate law enforcement officers in best practices for interacting with youth who are homeless and in services available to youth in their community.

Policy Recommendation: Create specialized units, like those in Houston and Austin, that emphasize diverting youth from the justice system (if they do not pose a threat to public safety) and connecting them with local supports and services.

Continuum of Care (CoC) Boards, Local Juvenile Boards & Local Child Welfare Boards

Policy Recommendation: Examine local responses to runaway youth and work with stakeholders to ensure that these young people are diverted from detention if they are not being held for another offense.  

Policy Recommendation: Include faith-based partners in the process of finding creative solutions to diverting runaway youth from detention (if they do not pose a threat to public safety), particularly in rural counties that may be starved for resources.

Policy Recommendation: Work together (CoCs and local stakeholders) to develop a continuum of community-based services and supports to help homeless youth secure housing and have their basic needs met (including mental health, substance abuse, or other treatment needs) — and develop a plan to address any service gaps.

Policy Recommendations: Youth Homelessness & the Child Welfare System

Texas Legislature

Policy Recommendation: Improve state data keeping so it is possible to determine in “real time” how many young people are in “runaway” status.

Policy Recommendation: Revamp the state’s Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program, with an eye toward individualized services that support a youth’s strengths and needs rather than relying on a static set of classes.

Supreme Court of Texas Children’s Commission

Policy Recommendation: Provide training to attorneys ad litem (AALs) on how to expunge and/or seal juvenile and criminal justice records.

Policy Recommendation: Reach out to legal aid providers and state university legal clinics in an effort to identify and/or develop resources for foster youth who are about to age out or who have already aged out and who need assistance expunging or sealing a court record.

Texas Department of Family & Protective Services

Policy Recommendation: Periodically review and publish aggregate data and analysis (once state data keeping has improved) to determine whether further improvements should be made or issues addressed based on trends or correlations with other youth characteristics, for example:

  • Trends in youth running from a particular placement;
  • Trends in youth running from particular types of placements;
  • Trends in youth with specific needs running from placements;
  • Trends based on youth demographics like race or ethnicity that may point to a need for cultural competency training for service providers.

Policy Recommendation: Review departmental policies to determine what should be done to provide more support to foster families and youth to ensure stability in placements and prevent foster youth from running from care, including:

  • Ensuring foster care providers receive training to assist them in meaningfully integrating trauma-informed principles into their programs in order to create cultures of care that prevent challenging behaviors and conflict from escalating into crises that can result in a youth running from a placement.
  • Offer counseling, crisis intervention, and/or respite services at the first sign that a foster care placement is in danger of failing, either through STAR or other available providers— and improve foster families’ access to these services.
  • Ensure that providers tap into the full range of in-home behavioral health supports and services available to foster youth through Superior Health.

Policy Recommendation: Provide training to drop-in centers around safe return to care so that center staff can communicate with runaway foster youth about their options if they seek services at a center.

Policy Recommendation: Review foster care placements and history for all youth who run away more than once to ensure that it is not the result of unaddressed needs or hidden abuse or neglect.  This could be done by regularly including these cases in Starfish staffing (an individual staffing for cases involving children with complex needs).

Policy Recommendation: Change rules for the Supervised Independent Living program (SIL) to allow youth to opt into SIL beginning at age 16 — if it is determined that the young person is ready for this step and SIL will result in a more stable placement.

Policy Recommendation: utilizing in-house investigators to assist law enforcement in finding youth to reduce their chances for victimization and trafficking, and should review its policies to ensure they incentivize prompt notification by caregivers when a youth runs from a placement.

Policy Recommendation: Work with law enforcement organizations and regional CPS offices to develop a model protocol or Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that local CPS offices and law enforcement could adopt to better ensure a quick response when a child runs from care, and implementation of trauma-informed practices when a child is located.

Policy Recommendation: Develop and encourage joint training for local CPS staff and law enforcement to build relationships and identify ways to collaborate when a child runs from care.

Policy Recommendation: Revamp the Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program, moving away from a static set of classes, to adopt an individualized, intensive case management approach for youth ages 14 and older that supports a youth’s strengths and needs, with more accountability to ensure that:

  • Youth are connected with at least one supportive adult;
  • Youth, caseworker, and supportive adult(s) begin developing a transition plan with concrete, identified goals that address housing, job, and workforce training or educational needs;
  • The transition plan clearly states who is responsible for assisting the youth in reaching the goals outlined in the plan;
  • Consistent follow-up is maintained between meetings and meaningful progress is made toward transition plan goals; and
  • Youth are connected with service providers who will continue to assist them after they age out.

Policy Recommendation: Schedule regular transition planning meetings or circles of support with youth once they turn 16, with a goal of meeting every three months to check on progress.

Policy Recommendation: Explore building more flexibility into the requirements surrounding completion of Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) classes and the impact of completion on benefits youth are eligible for after turning 18.

Policy Recommendation: Work with stakeholders to evaluate models for transitional living and determine how licensing can help facilitate development and sustainability of transitional living programs.

Policy Recommendation: Because more youth are opting to extend foster care beyond age 18 but are leaving after extending care a year on average and before turning 21, change the process for extending foster care to an “opt out” rather than an “opt in” — thereby improving the likelihood that more foster youth will continue to receive the support and services they need to prepare for adult living.

Policy Recommendation: Raise the reimbursement rates for the Supportive Independent Living (SIL) program so that more providers are able to participate.

Policy Recommendation: Review the application process for the Supportive Independent Living (SIL) program to determine what is preventing more youth from participating and develop a plan for addressing any barriers.

Policy Recommendation: Work with foster care providers to identify alternatives to law enforcement involvement for youth whose behavior does not pose a safety risk — including:

  • Providing training in the poor outcomes associated with juvenile or criminal justice system involvement.
  • Making crisis intervention and respite care available to foster care providers as alternatives to law enforcement involvement for youth whose behavior does not pose a safety threat.
  • When a youth’s behavior poses a safety threat, local stakeholders in CPS and probation should work together to determine whether that behavior is the result of unmet treatment needs that should be prioritized instead of involving the juvenile or criminal justice systems.
  • When involving the justice system cannot be avoided, local stakeholders in CPS and probation should work together to avoid duplicating services and to maximize the resources each can offer to meet the youth’s treatment needs.

County Child Welfare Boards & Continuum of Care (CoC) Boards

Policy Recommendation: Work with stakeholders to examine the impact of foster care on youth homelessness in their jurisdictions, develop local responses that take into account the need for a full continuum of care to prevent youth homelessness, and provide trauma-informed interventions.

Policy Recommendations: Youth Homelessness & Physical/Behavioral Health Systems

Government — Federal, State, & Local

Policy Recommendation: All levels of government, as well as funders of physical and behavioral health systems and services, must affirmatively invest in evidence-based prevention and early intervention programming and services.

Policy Recommendation: Federal and state statutes, policies, rules, and guidance for Medicaid and CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) should clearly provide for unaccompanied minors as a population and ensure that they can apply by removing these and other barriers to enrollment:

  • Requiring proof of parental income; and
  • Requiring a permanent residence or address.

Policy Recommendation: Federal and state government should work together to expand CHIP coverage to age 21 and reduce enrollment fees and co-pays for unaccompanied youth covered under this program.

Policy Recommendation: The State should simplify current consent laws so that youth are able to access and consent to all health care services they require. In particular:

  • Unaccompanied youth, age 14 and older, should be able to consent to physicals and immunizations so that they can fully participate in school activities.
  • At a minimum, health care providers must be held to a good faith standard when providing services to unaccompanied youth consenting to their own care.

Policy Recommendation: The State should enact clear, affirmative laws allowing minors to contract for “necessities,” including in that definition needed medical and behavioral health services.

Health Care Providers

Policy Recommendation: Create youth-centric services and programs that ensure youth seek out and obtain consistent physical and behavioral health services, and consider marketing services as youth-specific.  Such services should:

  • Allow for flexible hours;
  • Not use jargon to explain health conditions and disorders;
  • Utilize technology effectively (e.g., text youth to remind them about appointments or              medications);
  • Ensure on-site, same-day treatments whenever possible;
  • Encourage questions and feedback from youth;
  • Respect and understand that friends often serve as family and may be a young person’s only support system; and
  • Recognize youths’ independence and ability to survive independently.

Policy Recommendation: Set expectations for youth in small steps — work to reduce harm first, then work to change bad habits — thereby improving the chances of their developing a long-term relationship with a health provider who can educate them about their current and future health needs.

Policy Recommendation: Consider providing some mobile health care services — exploring partnerships with a university or corporate sponsor to make mobile services possible or to secure funding to pay the cost of transporting youth who are homeless to health facilities.

Policy Recommendation: Provide all health care staff serving youth experiencing homelessness with training in trauma-informed care and positive youth development.  For example, providers should be trained in strategies to build rapport and trust by working collaboratively with young clients.

Policy Recommendation: Partner with youth-based agencies — including drop-in centers, schools, meal providers, and shelters — to gain access to homeless youth in need of physical and behavioral health services and encourage agencies they already have a relationship with to refer them to health care providers.

Policy Recommendation: Health care clinics and programs connected to youth-focused agencies and organizations can be a bridge to more specialized health care professionals, if necessary.

Policy Recommendations: Services & Supports for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Federal Government

Policy Recommendation: The Federal government should establish one clear definition of homelessness and utilize that definition for all of its youth-focused programs. The State of Texas should honor the federal definition.

Texas Legislature / State Agencies

Policy Recommendation: Establish a statewide task force led by DFPS and TDHCA that is specifically charged with identifying funding strategies and opportunities to support and sustain a full continuum of quality services for young people who are experiencing homelessness and who are at risk.

Policy Recommendation: Create dedicated funding streams and policy changes, within both the state child welfare and housing agencies, to support services for youth and young adults who are experiencing or are at risk of homelessness. Some of these funding streams could be created by expanding existing programs, including:

  • Increasing funding for the Services to At-Risk Youth (STAR) program in the Prevention and Early Intervention (PEI) division at DFPS and better prioritizing prevention of youth homelessness as well as intervention for runaways who are homeless as a STAR service.
  • Increasing funding for the Homeless Housing and Services Program (HHSP) housed at Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) and earmarking the increase to support services designed for youth who are homeless and young adults.
  • Guaranteeing that young people experiencing homelessness, who are often victims of crime, are eligible for Victims of Crime Assistance (VOCA) funds available through the Office of the Governor.
  • Continuing to engage service providers that work with youth experiencing homelessness in developing a continuum of services for victims of domestic sex trafficking — and make funding to assist victims of trafficking available to programs serving homeless youth.

Policy Recommendation: Texas should build on successful and promising programs for young people who age out of foster care by expanding the eligibility criteria to include certain youth and young adults who are homeless and on their own.  For example:

  • Lawmakers should allow young people who are homeless and who have a documented history of abuse or neglect to opt in to an Supervised Independent Living (SIL) program without opting into foster care.
  • The Texas Legislature should appropriate funding to reimburse SIL providers for serving these young people in the same manner that it reimburses providers for serving foster care youth.
  • Texas should consider increasing funding for transition centers, which are “one stop shops” serving youth who age out of foster care, and expanding eligibility criteria for services through those centers to include homelessness.
  • Agencies such as the Texas Workforce Commission that help  support transition centers should make youth who are homeless a priority population, as well as foster youth.

Policy Recommendation: The Texas Legislature should require state agencies to show leadership to address youth homelessness by mandating that DFPS and TDHCA work together to address youth homelessness.  This would be similar to the federal structure, in which ACF and HUD each offer their own programs but work together.

Policy Recommendation: Align Residential Child Care Licensing Standards, state law, and federal requirements and expectations. The Texas Legislature should review residential child care licensing standards and the Texas Family Code in order to determine which policies and laws may prevent barriers for providers in serving youth and young adults who are homeless. The Legislature should also determine which policies and laws are aligned with federal requirements and then call on HHSC to rewrite challenging standards in order to facilitate the best services for young people and align state and federal requirements and expectations.

Policy Recommendation: Identify and build on lessons learned about ending youth homelessness from the research and work that has been done already as well as from the YHDP grant program. State and federal policymakers and other stakeholders should study the research that has been conducted already on best practices for serving young people who are homeless. State and federal policymakers, CoCs, providers, and other stakeholders should also look to the work that is currently being completed under HUD’s YHDP in order to understand how communities can come together to effectively tackle youth homelessness. Additionally, state and federal policymakers should continue to invest in the evaluation of programs that serve youth who are homeless, in order to measure and grow their effectiveness.

Report Team & Contact Information

Texas Appleseed Team:

Deborah Fowler, Executive Director

Gabriella McDonald, Pro Bono & New Projects Director

Ellen Stone, Director of Research

Kelli Johnson, Communications Director

Janis Monger, Communications Consultant

Emily Eby, Intern (Summer 2016)

Hailey Pulman, Intern (Summer 2017)

Texas Network of Youth Services (TNOYS) Team:

Christine Gendron, Executive Director

Lara O’Toole, Director of Training & Program Development

Jack Nowicki, Senior Program Development Specialist

We are extremely grateful to our pro bono partner Vinson & Elkins LLP for the research and interviews they completed for our report, and to Patricia Hart and Lindsay Read for the research support they provided.

Finally, we are incredibly appreciative of the more than 100 youth interviewed for this report.  We cannot emphasize enough how honest, brave, and forthright these young people were in telling their stories.

This report is generously supported by The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Meadows Foundation, and The Simmons Foundation.

For more information and for copies of our full report, connect with us through our websites and social media:

Follow Texas Appleseed on twitter and facebook.

Follow TNOYS on twitter and facebook.

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