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Policy inconsistency leaves youth experiencing homelessness behind

The definition of “homeless youth” has been interpreted variably among different organizations and federal acts, neglecting different types of youth and their families, leaving them at a disadvantage. The Los Angeles City Council must work to standardize this definition. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Sabrina Huang

Jan. 6, 2020 10:37 p.m.

The Los Angeles homelessness crisis has gripped the attention of local and national audiences.

But lost amid large-scale public scrutiny and media coverage are the youth experiencing homelessness.

In 2018, 18- to 24-year-old youth who first entered homelessness outpaced the rise among adults, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

The two major pieces of federal legislation that provide assistance to homeless youth differ in their definitions of homeless youth population. While the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act identifies homeless youth as individuals younger than 21, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act implies its policies only impact those who are under 18.

While this might appear to be a small discrepancy, standardization of this terminology has the potential to positively impact one of LA’s most vulnerable populations.

And the Los Angeles City Council has the opportunity to lead the way. As the primary political institution in a city that suffers from some of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation, the council has an obligation to work with organizations in California to standardize the definition of homeless youth. In doing so, they could place pressure on the federal government to eliminate barriers in supporting this population. And this begins with clearly defining its two most basic components – “homeless” and “youth.”

It may seem like nothing more than a disagreement in semantics, but these meanings are vital in establishing what populations are given access to public services and how those services are rendered.

Because even in California, shifting definitions can deprive individuals of potentially lifesaving resources.

Currently, the California Coalition for Youth sets the age range of “homeless youth” as 12 to 24. However, young children who suffer from housing insecurity are also in need of support programs. Excluding this population from definitions of homeless youth can effectively shut out thousands of young people from receiving aid.

Improving and Maintaining Homeless Opportunity through Mentorship and Education, an organization at UCLA dedicated to mentoring elementary school students as they transition out of homelessness, is a testament to the pressing needs of homeless children in LA.

“The youth I mentor at Alexandria House face many struggles,” said Lisa Pilcher, third-year psychobiology student and president of IMHOME. “Many of them are behind in school because they were not able to regularly attend school while being homeless. … Even a year of being homeless can have a huge impact on a child’s learning, education and growth.”

But age alone isn’t the only troubling inconsistency for aid qualification. The living conditions which qualify as “homelessness” also vary between federal legislation and agencies, translating to an uncomfortably direct impact on LA’s homeless youth.

While the RHYA only serves unaccompanied youth who do not live in a safe residence, the U.S. Department of Education, as mandated by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, must support children of homeless individuals who lack access to a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” These include transitional shelters, temporary housing between foster placements and abandoned buildings.

Considering how fundamental resources like housing are to the larger problem of homelessness, contradicting definitions should not be the reason youth are turned away when seeking help.

Dr. Norweeta Milburn, a professor-in-residence in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences whose work focuses on homeless adolescents and their families, said resources such as behavioral intervention programs are important in assisting youth experiencing homelessness.

“For those of us who have been doing this work for a long time, we would tell you that homelessness is a housing issue,” Milburn said. “It is the lack of housing and the lack of affordable housing.”

For a population that already comprises just over 15% of homeless individuals in LA, lack of access to affordable housing is only exacerbated by arbitrary distinctions that prevent youth from pursuing future educational and financial endeavors.

“Many (homeless youth) have experienced traumatic events prior to becoming homeless, especially if they’re coming from poor communities,” Milburn said. “They may have experienced violence in their homes, they’ve experienced other types of traumatic events where they’ve seen family members shot … and they can also experience traumas after they become homeless.”

Unsurprisingly, that trauma can interfere with academic performance. In a 2016 survey of students across the 10 UC campuses, those who experienced homelessness at some point in their enrollment suffered poorer academic results.

Establishing and abiding by one sweeping definition of homelessness among youth can support vulnerable individuals who may fall through the cracks amid conflicting legislative jargon.

It cannot go unsaid that the diversity in definitions of “homeless youth” is necessary to account for the complexity of homelessness. But implementing a standard definition can best encompass the totality of challenges impacting homeless youth of all ages – especially as this population grows within LA.

Standardizing the definition of what it means to be a homeless youth is a small, but fundamental first step. Creating consistency among state and federal statutes will lay the foundation for concrete policy action aimed at uprooting the systematic social failures underlying the homelessness crisis.

And LA has already made significant progress in this regard. Measure H, for example, has already helped move twice as many vulnerable youth into permanent housing since its passage in 2016.

But the city can and must do more to address the complicated intricacies of youth homelessness.

And perhaps the next course of action to tackle complexity is simplification.

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Sabrina Huang | Opinion editor
Huang is the 2021-2022 Opinion editor. She was previously a 2020-2021 assistant Opinion editor and an opinion columnist. She is also a third-year public affairs student at UCLA.
Huang is the 2021-2022 Opinion editor. She was previously a 2020-2021 assistant Opinion editor and an opinion columnist. She is also a third-year public affairs student at UCLA.
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