The New Homeless: Our Youth

Although overall homeless rates have reportedly fallen over the past decade, the number of homeless children has grown at an alarming pace.  According to recent data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Homeless Education, the number of homeless youth enrolled in K-to-12 public schools has increased by 72 percent since 2007, and has risen 10 percent between 2010 and 2011 alone.  Furthermore, the most recent Department of Education numbers reveal that a record number of children – 1.2 million – enrolled in public schools were homeless between 2011 and 2012.  The largest concentration of homeless youth are located in California, which has roughly 35 percent of the nation’s homeless youth population, followed by Florida, Texas, and New York.  Advocates say these numbers may not even reflect the full scope of the issue, as homeless children “try hard to blend in” and are often difficult to track if they drop out of school.

While these statistics are disheartening, law firms and public interest organizations are doing inspiring pro bono work to counteract the rise of youth homelessness and its consequences:

• In conjunction with DLA Piper*†, The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty operates a pilot project, Project LEARN, which is designed to protect the education rights of homeless children.  Although the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act upholds, among other things, a child’s right to remain in the same school they attended before becoming homeless even if sheltered temporarily in a different district, one major, frequent consequence of homelessness is disruption in education.  Project LEARN provides training, materials, referrals, and guidance to pro bono attorneys so that they can help protect children’s right to a stable education, including transportation to school, free school meals, and extracurricular activities.

• Every day pro bono volunteers around the country, including PBI staff, partner with front-line legal services organizations such as the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless to provide homeless families and their children with legal representation and other assistance to secure safe shelter.

• Last year, the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and Appleseed published a policy brief, “Unaccompanied, Unidentified and Unaccounted: Developing Strategies to Meet the Needs of America’s Homeless Youth,” which examines why homeless youth are not fully captured by currently-used models of identification and data collection and how this failure of information affects public policy.  The brief offers concrete policy suggestions for state and federal governments and advocates for homeless youth.  The policy brief was based on extensive research and interviews conducted across 30 states by Baker & McKenzie*†, Ballard Spahr*†, Steptoe & Johnson LLP*, and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr*†, who invested hundreds of hours of pro bono time on the collaborative project.

Despite these and many other laudable initiatives, we must redouble our efforts this winter season to address this rapidly growing problem.  Are you engaged in a pro bono project that empowers children and families in the face of homelessness?  Leave a comment and share your experience.

* denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®

denotes a Member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project