Youth Homelessness and the Uncertain Future in the Trump Administration

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Ben Carson, the famed neurosurgeon who has never held a position in government, is now set to take over the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Just weeks before accepting the nomination, Carson cast doubt on his suitability for a cabinet role by saying he would be “like a fish out of water” as a federal bureaucrat. Some say that HUD is a second-tier agency in terms of importance, but that is far from the truth. HUD programs have a significant impact on poverty, home ownership, and affordability. HUD also very importantly aims to combat youth homelessness.

Youth homelessness is a serious social issue in the United States. Homeless youth are typically defined as unaccompanied youth between the ages of 12 and 24 who lack parental, foster or institutional care. About 550,000 youth experience homelessness for a week or longer.

Youth become homeless for a variety of reasons, but they consistently identify family conflict and abuse as the primary factors. Other youth report parental substance abuse and school performance as issues that cause conflict with parents or guardians that cause them to leave. Some youth are forced from their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. One estimate suggests that LGBTQ youth make up between 20 to 40 percent of youth experiencing homelessness. This population is more likely to experience family conflict and abuse than their heterosexual peers.

Although family conflict may lead youth to leave home, most homeless youth end up returning home to their families. Therefore, most programs serving homeless youth use some form of family intervention to address conflict and help reconnect youth with their families when it is safe and appropriate.

Last year, the Urban Institute and Child Trends released a report examining the existing evidence behind family intervention strategies for youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness. The report describes key components to successful family interventions, gaps in the evidence base, and potential gaps in services. As the report explains, family-focused interventions are important because “Families will most often remain in youth’s lives far longer than service providers, and youth generally feel a connection to families and maintain some level of contact despite any conflict that may exist. One key informant provider we spoke with tells his frontline staff, ‘family will have more pull than you’ll ever have.’”  

Offering home-based services, using highly trained therapists, and planning for a long-term process are some of the common elements to successful family interventions. It’s also important to include both youth and their families in decision making and allowing them to set and commit to their own goals. Further, the providers interviewed for the study emphasized the importance of broadening the definition of family beyond parents and making sure that youth were defining the word “family”.          

The project revealed several research and service gaps. These included strategies targeting racial and ethnic minority families and school-based interventions. The project also found that additional research is needed on how to target family interventions to LGBTQ youth. For example, specialized interventions may be needed that address family conflict related to sexual orientation. The report concludes that while research has led to a better understanding of what generally makes family intervention strategies successful, more research is needed to evaluate those strategies targeted at youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

Clearly there’s a lot of work to do around youth homelessness and the next administration can take important steps to help or reverse progress.

Since Trump tapped Carson for HUD secretary, many concerns have been raised regarding Carson’s lack of experience and qualifications for the position.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), wrote in a statement, “Dr. Ben Carson is a disconcerting and disturbingly unqualified choice to lead a department as complex and consequential as Housing and Urban Development,” adding, “There is no evidence that Dr. Carson brings the necessary credentials to hold a position with such immense responsibilities and impact on families and communities across America.”

Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, also shared his concerns about Carson’s lack of expertise and experience in the field of housing. “Someone who is as anti-government as him is a strange fit for housing secretary, to say the least,” he said. Schumer went on to say that Americans need a HUD secretary who is “...well versed in housing policy and has a vision for federal housing programs that meets the needs of Americans across the country and seeks to provide access to those that we haven’t reached already.”

Perhaps most troubling is the many documented anti-LGBTQ statements that Carson has made. These comments have caused serious concerns over how HUD would address the housing needs of the LGBTQ community. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) sounded alarm over Carson’s nomination, referencing his staunch opposition to gay equality. “Throughout his failed presidential campaign, Carson ran on a platform on inequality, and, if nominated, his hateful views could have disastrous effects on LGBTQ people,” said HRC president Chad Griffin. “As a community already faced with housing insecurity, we need an ally, not an agitator, who will protect every American’s right to a safe place to lie down each night.”   

Carson has referred to homosexuality as “a choice” and has described transgender people as "abnormal." When asked about nondiscrimination legislation that provides protections for LGBT people, Carson said, “I think everybody has equal rights, but I’m not sure that anybody should have extra rights....” These comments are particularly disconcerting given that LGBTQ youth are consistently overrepresented among the homeless.

Congress also has a role to play. For one, Congress can increase the capacity of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) through reauthorization and funding. RHYA provides grants to communities to reach homeless youth on the streets, provide emergency housing and crisis intervention services. The reauthorization bill (S.262) which was introduced by Senators Leahy (D-VT) and Collins (R-ME) but has not yet been passed, includes important protections for LGBTQ homeless youth and extends family intervention and reunification services to Transitional Living Programs.  Secondly, Congress should provide additional funding for the Homeless Assistance Grants program within the Department of Housing and Urban Development to continue investments in homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing interventions. Finally, Congress should also allocate funding to carry out a study with the goal of improving knowledge about youth homelessness and its solutions.

A larger investment is needed on the federal level to prevent youth homelessness and to more quickly facilitate their reunification with family when possible. Last week, Carson’s nomination was confirmed unanimously by the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. While Carson’s nomination still needs to go before the full Senate for a vote, his confirmation appears increasingly likely. If confirmed, Carson’s lack of experience and discriminatory rhetoric gives us very little hope that he will make any progress in assisting homeless youth and closing the gaps for the vulnerable populations addressed in the report.

Author:

Lara Burt is a summer 2016 intern with New America’s Family-Centered Social Policy program.