Homeless Youth: Understanding the Population and Their Challenges


Garet Fryar, Policy Research Assistant

The average temperature for the contiguous United States during this past winter was 31.3 F. Many of us will remember how difficult the weather made our commute or travel; however, for the homeless and people in need of shelter, the risk of fatal hypothermia is a serious and constant concern.

In addition to having to endure freezing weather, being homeless means hardship in securing safe shelter, healthy food, medical attention, supportive relationships, and overall stability. Imagine a person struggling to combat all the obstacles that accompany homelessness. Now imagine that this individual is a youth.

It is difficult to pinpoint the number of homeless youth in America since many of these young people avoid asking for help. A fear of judgment or a lack of knowledge about their rights and available resources are a few obstacles that keep youth away from the assistance they need. Recent data suggests that about 110,000 youth are living on the streets, in cars, in abandoned buildings, and other public spaces. This number can be broken down into approximately 55,000 homeless teens ages 12 to 17 and another 55,000 homeless youth ages 18 to 25. However, these numbers do not include the homeless youth who are living in shelters, “couch surfing” with friends or family, or other situations where a young person lacks a permanent address. When these criteria are included, researchers have estimated that about 1 million to 1.6 million youth (5 percent to 7.7 percent of all American youth) experience homelessness at some time each year. Who are these youth and what leads them to homelessness?

  • One in seven young people between the ages of 10 and 18 will run away from home at some point.
  • The average age at which a teen becomes homeless is 14.7 years old, and teens ages 12 to 17 are more likely than adults to become homeless.
  • Increased exposure to trauma often leads youth to run away and become homeless. Forty-six percent of homeless youth left their home because of physical abuse, and 17 percent left due to sexual abuse.
  • Over half of the young people on the streets and in shelters reported that their parents told them to leave home or knew that they were leaving and didn’t care.
  • Foster care youth are at a high risk of becoming homeless; according to the Midwest Study, 36 percent of youth formerly in foster care, whose outcomes were known, had reported at least one episode of homelessness.
  • LGBTQ youth are some of the most vulnerable young people and make up 20 to 40 percent of homeless teens.

Once homeless, youth and children are more likely to go through harmful life experiences. About 25 percent of homeless children have witnessed violence, which often leads to a number of emotional and behavioral difficulties. Homelessness is associated with poor physical health for children and youth, including malnutrition, exposure to environmental toxins, and chronic illnesses such as asthma. These youth are also less likely than their peers to have adequate access to medical and dental care.

In order to cope with these obstacles, homeless youth often participate in risky behavior. Seventy-four percent of homeless youth have used illicit drugs and 48 percent reported significant alcohol use. Homeless youth are also often easy prey for human traffickers; 85 percent of confirmed sex trafficking victims are United States citizens, mostly runaway children. In a random sample from Covenant House New York, 48 percent of the youth who engaged in commercial sex activity did so because they did not have a place to stay and traded sex for shelter. In addition to the trauma that sex trafficking and survival sex bring, these young people are also at risk of being one of the estimated 21 percent of homeless youth who contract a sexually transmitted infection.

Health and security issues are many of the challenges that youth face in sustaining their education and jobs. Without a safe, stable place to call home, homeless children and youth often have interrupted and delayed schooling and are twice as likely to repeat a grade, have a learning disability, or to be suspended from school. In my next post, we will explore solutions that have been implemented across the country to confront the many challenges of homeless youth.

November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, National Runaway Prevention Month, and this year National Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week is from November 15th to 23rd.

Garet Fryar is the Policy Research Assistant at the American Youth Policy Forum.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.