Homeless Children and Youth: An Examination of Legal Challenges and Directions

By Vissing, Yvonne | The Journal of Law in Society, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Homeless Children and Youth: An Examination of Legal Challenges and Directions


Vissing, Yvonne, The Journal of Law in Society


VI. SOCIAL SERVICES

The early years of life are most critical for the developing child, and homeless children and youth tend not to have their needs adequately addressed and experience preventable problems. (122) Homelessness results after other resources have been depleted; this means that someone who is homeless will likely need more assistance than they would if they were helped before they hit bottom. The two major forms of assistance that people need are income and available affordable housing. When these two things are compromised, preventable physical, emotional and cognitive problems may occur, and more services will be needed as a result. Because of the resultant array of problems that accompanies homelessness, it usually costs more to help people who are homeless than people who are just poor; an investment in shoring up the middle class would likely result in lifting all boats, and reducing the number of people who need a multiplicity of services. The increase in economic distress has resulted in pressuring the existing social safety net to near its breaking point as more people need assistance and services and funding are limited or cut. According to the Foundation for Child Development, (123) twenty-one percent of U.S. children now live below the poverty line, which is the highest figure in over twenty years. The Child and Youth Well-Being Index Project at Duke University allege that as economic indicators have plummeted, the quality of all children's lives has also gone down. Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michigan public policy professor predicts dismal prospects for the increasing number of poor and near-poor families unless Congress allocates greater funding and support for families. (124) A study of American cities found that homelessness is up and more than one in four people needing assistance could not receive it. Many middle-class Americans have dropped below the low-income threshold (around $45,000 for a family of four) because they have had hours cut at work, lost their jobs, or benefits, or cannot keep up with housing, food, health and child care costs. Families in the south and west, including Arizona, New Mexico and South Carolina have cut programs for the needy but have some of the highest numbers of low-income families in the nation. Texas and California have the largest total numbers of poor families. (125) The relationship between increased need and decreased funding for social services is clear, resulting in many homeless children, youth and families being unable to access the services and care they need. (126)

There are federal programs in place, established by law, that attempt to assist homeless children and youth. But many of the programs have such rigorous requirements that homeless youth and children may not qualify, thereby leaving at-risk children who need assistance underserved. In Table 6, (127) Samuels, Shinn, and Buckner summarize the list of programs traditionally available for homeless children and youth. While the list attempts to cover a vast array of needs, many of the social service needs of homeless children and youth may fall between the cracks.

The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHY) became law in 2008. The mandates and benefits are administered by the Family and Youth Services Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Administration for Children and Families. It was established to connect youth to family reunification programs, outreach workers on the streets, emergency shelter, longer-term housing and myriad additional support systems, including workplace preparation, education, health and behavioral health services, and other opportunities to ensure their safety and well-being. The RHY Act includes four programs: the Basic Center Programs, which includes emergency shelter and services related to food, clothing, counseling and access to health care and reunification when possible; the Transitional Living Programs, which support long-term (up to eighteen months and an additional 180 days for those under age eighteen) residential services to homeless youth ages sixteen to twenty-one for self-sufficiency living; the Maternity Group Homes for Pregnant and Parenting Youth programs, which support long-term residential services (up to eighteen months and an additional 180 days for those under age eighteen) for homeless pregnant and parenting young people aged sixteen to twenty-one and their dependent children; and Street Outreach Programs, which provide financial assistance to private and nonprofit agencies for their outreach efforts targeting getting youth off the streets including information and referrals to crisis interventions. …

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