BOSTON, Mass.—The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Special Commission on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth released its inaugural report at the end of April. The research in the report is setup to expand within the next few years, going deeper into underlying issues of homelessness that do not typically receive government or media attention. The commission states that their goal is to “ensure a comprehensive and effective response to the unique needs of unaccompanied homeless youth” and that this effort is a “solid first step.”
The Massachusetts Special Commission on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth was established at the end of 2012, when Governor Patrick signed off on a budget that included an amendment that established the commission and asked it to research the problem of unaccompanied youth homelessness in the Commonwealth.
The report tackles some of the major issues effecting unaccompanied homeless youth.
First, it establishes the definition of an unaccompanied homeless youth. Until now, there had been no universal definition for an unaccompanied homeless youth at the state or federal levels. Organizations tend to vary widely in who is considered a (1) a youth, (2) homeless and (3) unaccompanied.
The commission defined an unaccompanied homeless youth as “a person 24 years of age or younger who is not in the physical custody or care of a parent, legal guardian, or responsible adult and who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”
Some of these youth might have legal care from a parent or guardian, but the report looks only into physical custody. Legal custody is defined as the parent or guardian having “the right and responsibility to make major decisions regarding the child’s welfare.” Physical custody “refers to a child’s residence and supervision.” Emphasizing it over legal custody tackles the importance of youth having consistent, adequate housing. The commission’s report explains that “a ‘couch surfing’ youth is . . . still unaccompanied” under the definition of physical custody, whereas the child may still be in legal custody.
Homeless students generally have a very different life than their housed counterparts.
The report cites startling statistics about the differences between homeless and housed students. While only one percent of housed students have ever used heroin, 21 percent of homeless students report using it. About 43% of homeless students have “had sexual contact against their will,” versus eight percent of housed students. Finally, 32 percent of homeless students are in a gang, as opposed to only 5 percent of housed students.
The disparity is not surprising: The population of housed students greatly outweighs those that are homeless. The commission also makes sure to note the “invisible” unaccompanied homeless population. They do not go to school, are not under the physical or legal custody of an adult and are “often highly mobile, and in many cases, reluctant to engage with traditional state or local services.” There is a lack of data, but the numbers give an impression of the at-risk behaviors and circumstances of these youth.
There are plenty of barriers to serving unaccompanied homeless youth. Most fraught are the cultural, institutional, and individual issues that limit how much help youth are willing, or often capable, of getting. These youth often cannot attain a driver’s license, suffer a language barrier, have a distrust of adults, and fear organizations that aim to help will only make matters worse.
Within unaccompanied homeless youth, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) population is “over-represented.”
Many of the LGBTQ youth feel ostracized. Some are runaways, others have been kicked out f their home because of their sexuality and gender identification. The report indicates that LGBTQ youths’ needs are rather specific: The “needs of LGBTQ youth are often substantially different that those of non-SMY (sexual minority youth).”
LGBTQ youth do not seek resources the same way straight unaccompanied homeless youth do. Many have had bad experiences with adults, including representatives from resource centers who lack the awareness and training to serve these youths’ specific needs. Proper competency training within agencies will be a focus in future campaigns by the commission. The commission advises a three-pronged approach to help unaccompanied LGBTQ homeless youth: increasing resources, educating staff of existing agencies on how to handle LGBTQ issues, and gathering accurate and comprehensive data to further understand this population.
Further progress on this issue will require legislative action. One bill to increase funding for services geared toward unaccompanied homeless youth—the Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Act (H.B. 135)—is already being considered by the State Legislature’s Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. A public hearing will be held on July 16.