Ending Youth and Family Homelessness

Today I am headed to Los Angeles to attend a national conference focused on ending youth and family homelessness by 2020. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has worked hard to draw attention to not only ending chronic homelessness, but addressing the different approaches in working with youth and families.

While a “housing first” model works for hardcore, older adult homeless, it is not necessarily the most effective model for working with unaccompanied minor youth. For homeless youth (ages 11 through 17) the first goal is family reunification. At Bill Wilson Center, we’re able to get 85 percent of our shelter residents back home or placed with a relative. The other 15 percent either enter foster care or they chose to leave our program before we can link them to safe, stable homes. Sometimes kids don’t want to return home, or feel they can’t, and they don’t like the alternatives and chose the streets.

Would a “housing first” model work for these street kids? I’m not so sure.

Right now, you cannot legally put a minor in an unlicensed home, and these kids don’t want to stay in foster homes. Many of these more difficult homeless youth have grown up in homeless families—family members are often in and out of jail or drug addicted. They have a hard time adapting to rules once placed in foster homes, and oftentimes struggle with losing the freedom they have while on their own. 

With our “no fail” policy in mind, we let homeless youth return to stay at our shelter whenever they need to. Often it is a medical issue that brings them back. Sooner or later we can get them to stay, but it takes time to build that trust. Our outreach workers often connect with them on the streets and bring them back to the shelter or direct them to our downtown 2nd Street Drop-In Center, where they can get connected to much needed services.

I am curious to hear what the conference will propose to end youth and family homelessness by 2020. I would like to retire around that time and it would be great if I worked myself out of a job! However, I know there will still be plenty to do to keep families together so youth homelessness can be prevented in the first place.

I’ll post again from the conference. I’m sure you’re also curious about how we can end youth and family homelessness.

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.


  1. Here’s a radical idea…

    Decriminalize all small drug possession.  Putting kids in foster care while a parent is incarcerated for possession is silly.

    If a parent does need incarceration, I think we need to ease up on the standard of who can qualify as a foster parent.  Any family, or the parents of any students that the child attends school with would be moved to the front of the line.

    Offer financial / legal support for any volunteer foster that meets the criteria. Abolish the industrialized foster system. 

    I’m also not convinced about case workers, because often times I’ve seen them be very judgmental, or spiteful in some cases. You still need someone to check up on things from time to time, but I’m not sure if giving them all the authority they have is in the best interest of the child in all cases.

    You can’t really put a percentage on the amount of acceptable screwups. It should be 0%, but we know there’s always some rogues somewhere in the ranks of case workers.

  2. Good comments, Robert.  New programming shows, “meeting people where they are at”  or Harm Reduction really works.  You don’t take someone’s housing away because they broke the rules.  You find another way, you take small steps.  Kids will talk to you if they trust you.

    • Mehhh It wasn’t that good.  Sort of went PTSD and off tangent :/

      These days most of the kids I see on the streets are what folks call “Meth Bums”  Not really there because of extenuating circumstances, but by their own affliction.

      I see them everywhere, lined up on freeway exits, standing on traffic islands with “Will work for food” signs.  It really is sad.

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