Principles of Change for Addressing the Intersections of Juvenile Justice Involvement and Youth Homelessness

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By: Celia King, Intern

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice and our partners, the National Network for Youth and the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, are seeking to address the intersections between juvenile justice and youth homelessness. In our recently-released Principles for Change report, we drew on expertise from across the country to help ensure that young people do not experience homelessness as a result of being involved in the justice system, and alternatively, that experiencing homelessness does not lead young people into contact with the justice system.

Every year, more than one million youth are involved in some way with law enforcement or the justice system and nearly 400,000 youth will experience homelessness for a period of time. There is an overlap between these populations. Research funded by the Family and Youth Services Bureau has shown that out of 654 runaway and homeless youth in 11 U.S. cities, almost 44% reported that they had been in jail, prison, or a juvenile detention center. Additionally, nearly 78% reported having at least one interaction with the police and almost 62% said they had been arrested.

These interactions can in part be explained by a lack of shelter, food, and other necessities. A status offense, like truancy for example, can land a young person in trouble with the law, even when they missed school because they did not have stable housing. To acquire necessities like food, youth experiencing homelessness may resort to survival crimes like trespassing or stealing. Also, some laws and ordinances make it illegal just to be in public spaces at certain times.

Involvement with the justice system can also lead youth to experience homelessness. After youth encounter the justice system, their families may not be willing to let them return home, and landlords or public housing authorities may deny them housing. In a 2015 survey of minors in detention in King County, Washington, only 65% believed they would have a parent or relative they could live with when they were released and 48% reported that they had experienced homelessness or had dealt with housing instability before being detained.

Our Principles offer communities a framework to help their youth avoid the justice system and homelessness. Some of the Principles highlighted in the resource include:

Principle 4: Ensure your community has both long- and short-term safe housing options available for youth who are, or have been, involved with the juvenile justice system. Public agencies should confirm that their jurisdiction provides options for youth that need someplace to stay, no matter how long. These options must be tailored for youth and as accessible as possible. For example, there should not be barriers that prevent those with a history with the justice system from staying there, or barriers that require parental consent.

Principle 5: Ensure your community provides youth and their families with related services and supports that can help them obtain and keep safe and stable housing. Those include education, workforce development programs, and developmentally appropriate programs that address trauma. Public agencies should work together and remove restrictions on how these funding streams can work in conjunction with one another.

Principle 8: Ensure efforts prioritize lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning (LGBTQ) youth, gender nonconforming (GNC) youth, youth of color, and other over-represented populations to address and reduce the disproportionalities that exist in the populations of youth experiencing homelessness and/or involved with the juvenile justice system. Existing community-based services that seek to reduce youth homelessness need to be accessible to LGBTQ/GNC youth, as well as people of color. Employees within agencies and programs should reflect the diverse group of individuals they are attempting to help, and LGBTQ/GNC youth and youth of color should be at the forefront in creating programming that can appeal to their peers and their communities.

By employing these and the other Principles for Change, communities can effectively address the intersections that exist between juvenile justice and youth homelessness. Creating partnerships across sectors that focus on providing secure and reliable housing and services that resolve underlying needs for young people and their families will help to alleviate the issues that youth face when dealing with homelessness and/or the justice system. Law enforcement, judiciary officers, educators, policy makers, and youth must work together to eliminate these intersections as they all have a crucial role in these efforts.

For a full list of the Principles, and examples of strong practices from the field, read the Report.