Why Cities Should Support, Not Arrest, Homeless Youth

This is a guest post by NLC’s Lydia Lawrence.

In America, young people who are homeless or face housing instability experience arrest and detention much more often than other youth. As many as 78 percent of the estimated 400,000 homeless youth in America have had at least one interaction with police and 44 percent have spent the night in a juvenile facility or jail.

Recognizing that cities have core interests in public safety and supporting the healthy development of youth, the National League of Cities contributed to a set of Principles for Change to reduce the all-too-common overlap between homelessness and the juvenile justice system as part of a project sponsored by the Raikes Foundation, the Tow Foundation and Melville Charitable Trusts.

The lead partners in developing the principles – NLC, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and National Network for Youth – consulted with experts from across the country to build a cohesive set of recommendations. As a result, the principles provide dozens of opportunities for multiple systems to reduce the number of youth experiencing both homelessness and juvenile justice involvement. This blog highlights five recommendations most relevant to city leaders.

The Challenge:                                                                                                                         

Close to half of youth in the juvenile justice system report having been on their own without a place to stay at some point.  Both justice system involvement and homelessness result in more negative outcomes for youth down the road.

The Recommendations:

  1. Provide police with alternatives to arrest

City leaders can directly reduce the criminalization of homeless youth by ensuring police have alternatives to arrest and options to immediately connect youth with community-based services. The city should prioritize services outside of the justice system so police don’t feel that they must arrest youth to ensure their safety and connect them to services. City leaders should consider changing laws and ordinances that criminalize “survival behavior,” such as sleeping in public spaces or panhandling, and link youth committing these actions with services and school.

City Spotlight: In Portland, Oregon, the Juvenile Reception Center provides 24-hour intervention services for youth picked up by the police for low level offenses, including those correlated with homelessness. The center provides screening, food, clothing, overnight stays, and follow-ups with families and has contributed to an 86 percent reduction in the disproportionate detention population of minority youth in the local juvenile detention center. 

  1. Ensure services and supports can be accessed regardless of housing status

Transient youth – those without consistent and safe housing – face the steepest barriers to receiving needed services and opportunities such as summer jobs, afterschool programs or recreational sports leagues. City leaders can train first responders to identify adolescents in need and prioritize inclusive youth development programs. Benefits to the city include saving money and promoting safety by ending potential future cycles of crime and homelessness.

  1. Incorporate the voices of young people with relevant experiences

Authentic youth engagement served as a key tenet in three cities – Austin, Cleveland and Los Angeles – participating in recent 100 Day Challenges to reduce youth homelessness.  As experts on their own experience, youth should shape city policy and practices that affect them. The strongest strategies seat youth on panels, boards or councils and rely on them to co-create solutions. Involve youth and young adults on juvenile justice and homelessness advisory groups and hire them into relevant positions. Cities can train all youth-interacting staff on positive youth development and seek out specific funding for youth engagement efforts to involve these valuable voices.

  1. Host a Point in Time Count of Homeless Youth

Data helps city leaders design programming and policy. By hosting a Point in Time count, cities can accurately count homeless and unstably housed youth. Further, the collection of disaggregated data can aid city leaders in matching needs with the capacity of youth homeless service providers and to direct city agencies to fill gaps. The Voices of Youth Count Toolkit (“VoYC”) offers resources and supports for city leaders.

  1. Provide Youth-friendly Identification

Municipal ID systems remove substantial barriers from youth experiencing homelessness, such as exclusion from economic and civic opportunities and risk of arrest. Municipal IDs are identification cards issued by, or with the approval of, local governments that feature the photo of the cardholder and other basic identifying information such as date of birth so the card can be used as proof of identity. New York City’s ID program enrolled over 215,000 people in the first six months, and has over 30 city partnerships to boost cardholder benefits.

City leaders can create or publicize a municipal ID system and make it easy for young people, including those disengaged from school or other services, to receive ID cards. Ensure that municipal IDs represent all youth, including LGBTQ youth and youth without a fixed address.

For more information on what your city can do to reduce the criminalization of homeless youth, contact Laura Furr, program manager for Justice Reform and Youth Engagement in the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at (202) 626-3072 or furr@nlc.org.

LydiaAbout the Author: Lydia Lawrence is a summer intern in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.