America’s youth homelessness problem is much worse than we thought. According to a landmark new study by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, one in every 10 young adults will experience homelessness over the course of a given year, and nearly half of those young people will spend time in prison, jail or a juvenile detention center. This street-to-prison pipeline can derail a young person’s life before it has even begun, but what’s most disheartening is that many of these encounters with the justice system are preventable.
To understand how this pipeline can be disrupted, we have to examine regressive laws that permit locking up young people who have committed “status offenses.” Status offenders are young people who have committed an offense that would be perfectly legal if they were adults, such as staying out after curfew, truancy or running away.
The research shows nearly half of youth experiencing homelessness had been in juvenile detention, jail or prison and that nearly one-third had experiences with foster care. These findings confirm that these systems offer important entry points for preventing large numbers of youth from becoming homeless.
This should be a wake-up call to policymakers, if not for the social implications, then for the financial ones. It costs $150,000 to incarcerate a young person for a year, which is money that could be spent helping young people go to college or get career training. The costs are even higher when you factor in the social safety nets they often require upon leaving the juvenile justice system.
Last year, both the House and Senate took up reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The House version would ultimately ban the practice of detaining status offenders. The Senate bill would not. Advocates argue that failing to include a ban would be damaging to young people for generations to come.
Adults who regularly interact with young people can help reverse these trends. In school, teachers see students every day and should be trained to identify risk factors and opportunities to intervene early on. They are often the only adults that school-aged kids interact with, and are more likely to see when these students are struggling, slipping towards homelessness or living on the streets.
Furthermore, police, attorneys, judges, counselors and social workers must also be trained to recognize the signs of housing instability to ensure the system is addressing it. If not, we risk fueling a brutal cycle of poverty, incarceration and systemic disenfranchisement that can be nearly impossible to break.
Eliminating the ability to lock up young people for status offenses would be a major step toward breaking the homelessness to incarceration cycle. By acting as if homeless youth and justice-involved youth are distinct populations, we are missing key opportunities to intervene and restore safety and stability to young people’s lives.
To address this growing crisis, Americans must work together to prevent youth homelessness before it begins. The next generation of Americans is at risk. Now that we know the severity of America’s youth homelessness crisis, we must do all that we can to identify the symptoms and seize opportunities for intervention wherever they are possible.
Casey Trupin is a program officer for youth homelessness at the Raikes Foundation. He was previously the coordinating attorney for the children and youth project at Columbia Legal Services in Seattle.