Homeless students: one a victim, the other an offender

Homeless students: one a victim, the other an offender

(Texas) Outcomes for homeless children in Texas may largely depend on which state or educational agency identifies them first, according to a new study.

The report, released by Texas Appleseed, a non-profit advocacy organization, and Texas Network of Youth Services, found that if a student under the age of 17 is living on the street and is picked up by law enforcement, they are labeled a “runaway,” a status offender who is referred to the juvenile justice system for rehabilitation.

On the other hand, someone at a shelter can contact the child welfare system, and that same child may be deemed a victim of abuse or neglect and placed in the foster care system for protection.

Thus, authors concluded, the same youth is either a victim or an offender, depending on which system he or she encounters first.

“Despite the best efforts of homeless liaisons and other service providers, the state of Texas is missing a critical opportunity to meaningfully intervene and change the life trajectory of thousands of youth experiencing homelessness,” Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, said in a statement. “If these young people are not able to reach their full potential, ultimately the whole community suffers.”

Research has long shown that students who experience homelessness are more likely to be chronically absent, retained a grade or drop out of school, come into contact with the juvenile justice system, develop physical or mental health problems, and are at a higher risk of becoming victims of crime, including human trafficking.

According to the latest study, disjointed policies in identifying and address the needs of homeless youth have resulted in disjointed services being provided to them throughout Texas. For instance, if a student is not living on the street but is “doubled up” and living with friends or relatives, whether or not he or she is deemed homeless depends on which system of services being accessed. That student would be counted as homeless by their school, entitling them to educational services and protections, but if the school refers the child to a community organization for additional supports, that same students may not be considered homeless and would be ineligible for their help.

 Researchers analyzed data from the Texas Education Agency, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, the Department of Family and Protective Services and from Youth Count Texas.

Despite the lack of a uniform definition of homelessness shared throughout agencies, the report did find that schools are making significant strides in identifying homeless youth. More than 113,000 Texas public school students were identified as being homeless at some point during the 2014-15 school year–an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. Authors suggest the jump is likely due to better efforts to identify students rather than an increase in homelessness.

While increasing efforts to identify students who may be homeless is a necessary first step, authors of the report also note that “reducing or resolving the issue of youth homelessness and improving outcomes for young people is going to require a cohesive approach that brings all child-serving systems together to provide a full continuum of services.”

Authors recommend the state establish a task force led by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and the Department of Housing & Community Affairs; create dedicated funding streams to support services for youth and young adults who are experiencing homelessness or are at-risk; and strengthen prevention and early intervention services for youth.