Interested in policy supporting homeless youths? ABA group provides guidance

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Youth holding up a cutout of a home in front of a wall of graffiti

“A lot of youth need some support because they are still just learning how to live life,” says Gabriella McDonald, a special adviser to the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty. Image from Shutterstock.

Richard Hooks Wayman was a senior youth policy analyst at the National Alliance to End Homelessness in the mid-2000s when he became involved with the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty.

Hooks Wayman spent most of his earlier career focusing on youth homelessness issues—which included authoring Minnesota’s first Runaway and Homeless Youth Act—and was drawn to the commission’s new initiative to draft model state laws to address the needs of homeless youths. Up until that time, he says state policymakers rarely considered them.

“Commission members [and volunteers] are geographically dispersed around the United States, and all of us had been experiencing that the world of homeless youth advocacy in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s had been focused on federal resources and federal policy,” says Hooks Wayman, now the president and CEO of Volunteers of America Northern New England. “But how homeless youth look in Los Angeles is very different than how they look in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, right? What we began to realize is there are lots of opportunities for advocacy to create great policy that fits the local, contextual issues.”

In 2009, the Commission on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Network for Youth published Runaway and Homeless Youth and the Law: Model State Statutes. This free, first-of-its-kind resource was drafted, reviewed and edited by attorneys and youth advocates and featured model legislation related to access to education, health care and legal services, among other areas.

The publication was critical in guiding state and local advocacy efforts, so Hooks Wayman says he and others involved in the commission decided in 2021 to incorporate substantial developments that occurred in the practice of serving homeless youths in recent years.

“Best practices have changed, and how this crisis unfolds itself is changing,” says Hooks Wayman, who is now a liaison to the commission. “We thought it was time to really pick up on what we’ve been learning in the field over the last 15 years and come out with a new publication.”

How can advocates help homeless youths?

In October, the Commission on Homelessness and Poverty released Model State Statutes: Youth and Young Adult Homelessness, the culmination of a two-year initiative that again involved the National Network for Youth as well as additional national and local partners and numerous youths who have experienced housing instability.

Their participation was vital, and according to the commission, one of the most important developments since the initial publication.

“What emerged from this second collaborative effort—and is reflected in the models—is a foundational understanding and acknowledgement that youth are best served by having the agency to exercise rights on their own behalf,” Jayesh Patel, its then chair, wrote in the new edition.

Casey Trupin is the director of housing stability for youth at the Raikes Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit that supports organizations focusing on youths and young adult homelessness, among other areas. He is also a past chair of the Commission on Homelessness and Poverty and worked on both publications. From his perspective, more advocates are asking for guidance on youth homelessness now than 15 years ago.

“There is more understanding that this issue cuts across a lot of silos in terms of youth issues,” says Trupin, a special adviser to the commission. “And, I would say, the understanding that preventing youth homelessness means engaging with a lot of other systems—school, justice, child welfare, behavioral health—is increasing.”

Trupin adds that the latest recommendations were informed by more comprehensive data on homeless youths as well as state laws that have gone into effect since 2009.

“We were able to analyze: What are the statutes that actually cause meaningful change, and which don’t?” he says.

In particular, the commission and its partners made significant updates to the section on “LGBTQIA2S+ youth,” which includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, two-spirit individuals and questioning youths.

These youths are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than non-LGBTQ youths but still have little protection from bias and discrimination in many states, according to the new edition. To help alleviate these issues, the model state statute requires organizations that serve homeless youths to provide ongoing “LGBTQIA2S+, anti-racist, culturally responsive and trauma-informed competence training” to staff, contractors and volunteers.

Hooks Wayman says the commission and its partners intentionally focused on equity in the new edition, sharing the perspective that the root causes of homelessness are often grounded in homophobia, racism and discrimination.

“When you look at who’s experiencing homelessness, it’s oftentimes Black, indigenous, youth of color, it’s oftentimes youth with disabilities, and it’s oftentimes LGBTQI youth,” he says. “They are experiencing homelessness at higher rates because of marginalization, so we had to take an equity lens to our work.”

The latest publication also introduces relatively new concepts in the practice of serving homeless youths. It includes model legislation on host homes, which provide a temporary place for youths to stay while they move toward self-sufficiency; and direct cash transfer programs, which offer unconditional cash assistance to youths in need.

Following the ABA’s guidance

A lot of homeless youths fall through the cracks, especially since many states don’t have a specific office or employees dedicated to helping this population, says Gabriella McDonald, another special adviser to the Commission on Homelessness and Poverty who assisted with the new model state statutes publication.

She says that its guidance can help states fill these gaps and begin considering how to set up better support systems for youths experiencing homelessness.

“A lot of youth need some support because they are still just learning how to live life,” says McDonald, the deputy director at Texas Appleseed. “It’s really important to make sure there is flexibility and opportunity for those youth to prosper, and they know where to go.”

Hooks Wayman also encourages advocates to take what they need from the publication to address the most pressing issues in their communities.

“I hope people will find an issue they’re passionate about, look at the model statute and call on the ABA and our partner agencies to provide them with technical support so they can actually take a draft to their local legislature and say, ‘Hey, this is a really great model act, and we think we need it here,’” he says.

See also:

“Preventive action is needed to reduce youth homelessness”

“Seattle lawyer focuses on systemic changes to end youth homelessness”

“Advocating for at-risk children is Richard Hooks Wayman’s mission”

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