Here at TNOYS, we’re excited to see momentum growing around the effort to better understand and address homelessness among young people. For many people, the laws that apply to unaccompanied, homeless or runaway youth can seem vague and complicated, making it sometimes difficult to find solutions to help them access basic services. Last month, TNOYS’ Jack Nowicki participated in a panel at the Texas Homeless Network conference focused on one particularly complex topic facing homeless youth – gaining access to shelter and housing services.
Jack and two other experts, TNOYS Board Member Erin Whelan of Lifeworks and Gabriella McDonald of Texas Appleseed, participated in the panel moderated by Texas Homeless Education Office’s Jeanne Stamp. During the hour-long session, the three discussed a variety of challenges providers might face in securing housing for youth, and offered ideas about how to address them. The panelists shared that these situations can be delicate and require perseverance, judgment calls, a strong understanding of local resources, and creative solutions to ensure vulnerable young people get the help they need.
You can watch the full panel discussion here, and we’ve summarized some of the main take-aways below.
The Murky Legal Status of 17-Year-Olds
Here in Texas, a 17-year-old is generally considered an adult in the eyes of the justice system, yet doesn’t possess all the legal rights of an adult. That means that a young person who has left his or her home to seek alternate shelter can be defined in a variety of ways by local law enforcement – they could be reported as a missing person, a runaway, or not reported at all because they’re technically considered an adult. It’s important to be familiar with how law enforcement in your community handles these situations so you can avoid the potentially serious consequences of sheltering a person who might be considered missing or a runaway.
Handling Reporting Requirements
Any time a young person under 18 shares that they are without housing and in need of shelter, there is a legal requirement that you contact the parent or guardian within 24 hours to get “consent” to house the young person. If the parent or guardian can’t be reached or appears to present a danger, Children’s Protective Services (CPS) must be called. Calling the authorities can present challenges, as many young people are afraid of the system and in some cases, their parents. To maintain the young person’s trust, it is important to build rapport with them and have an honest conversation about reporting requirements and the fact that these are calls you have to make.
Exploring Family Resources
Keeping families together is always the ideal solution, and even if it seems unlikely that a home situation can be improved, you might be surprised at the resources that are available to help. If it appears that a family crisis prompted the young person to leave their home, don’t hesitate to reach out to Services To At-Risk Youth and Families (STAR). This state-funded program is available in all Texas counties, and is committed to providing immediate crisis intervention to reunite or resolve conflicts between youth and families. STAR programs have a strong track record of success.
It’s also important to determine whether a young person seeking shelter might have extended family that can be called. In some cases, extended family may not be aware of the situation and once informed, will be eager to step up and help out.
The Services and Benefits CPS is Required to Provide
It is very important to be aware of the CPS services and benefits youth are entitled to so that you can take full advantage of them. Every region in Texas has a designated CPS worker on call 24 hours a day – know who that person is and make sure they are responsive to you, no matter what time of day.
Panelists discussed scenarios in which, once they’ve been reached, CPS workers might declare a youth ineligible for services when that’s not actually the case. Be aware of what types of young people are entitled to CPS protection – that includes anyone under the age of 18, even if they’re just a few days away from their 18th birthday, or are not a U.S. citizen. Many CPS workers are overworked and overwhelmed, but it is important to push back on them to ensure you secure the best possible resources for the youth you’re representing.
Aside from immediate housing needs, there are many other benefits that young people could risk missing out on if denied CPS care. Teens who age out of the foster care system are entitled to benefits that can be essential to getting them back on the path to successful adulthood. Allowing a young person to be declared ineligible for CPS services risks having them lose out on these critical services.
The panel discussion proved that it’s critical to be informed about legal issues and available resources when attempting to secure emergency shelter for homeless, unaccompanied youth. But as the speakers pointed out, it’s also important in these situation to push boundaries, think creatively, and persevere.
For additional guidance, please download a free copy of Understanding Youth Rights: Helping Providers Navigate the Laws and Policies Affecting Unaccompanied Homeless Youth.