An aerial view of Washington, D.C.
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A new joint-report from The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Network for Youth claims that some of our nation’s laws regarding homeless and runaway youth focus on punishing youth, while failing to take into consideration the circumstances that cause young adults to flee their homes initially.  The groups reviewed the laws that currently affect the estimated 700,000 homeless unaccompanied minors in the U.S. and its territories, and made recommendations for policy changes to lower legal barriers for runaway youth seeking resources. 

The report found that Washington, D.C. is one of only 14 U.S. jurisdictions to waive fees for youth to obtain non-driver identification, needed to complete tax forms and access many services. However, the District requires two items for proof of residency, such as a utility bill or lease, to receive an ID, in addition to a guardian’s signature for youth under 18. The report recommends waiving these requirements for youth that cannot contact their guardians or receive these items in the mail. 

In D.C., as in most jurisdictions, it is illegal to harbor a runaway. Most states mandate that runaways be reported by those sheltering them immediately or within a few hours, even if there are signs of abuse or neglect by guardians. In D.C. this law applies only to youth who run away from the child welfare system.  

Although these laws are well-intentioned, they discourage youth from seeking shelter for fear of being reported. The report suggests allowing a longer wait period for reporting runaways so that youth will seek help in emergency situations. It also recommends preventing authorities from transporting youth without their permission and providing services such as parenting classes and family mediation, that help to alleviate many of the family issues that cause youth to run away. 

D.C.’s policies regarding healthcare for homeless youth already follow many of the recommendations given by the report. D.C. law allows youth and minors to consent to a wide range of health services without parental consent. It is one of 28 jurisdictions that allow youth to seek mental health treatment without notifying a guardian and one of only 14 to allow minors to consent to terminating pregnancies without restrictions. For homeless youth in D.C., healthcare is covered by the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), an extension of Medicaid. Minors can apply for healthcare on their own in 36 territories. 

Many jurisdictions, including D.C., still have a long journey ahead to end youth homelessness, according to the report. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Network for Youth say they aim to “recommend steps that can protect the safety, development, health, and dignity of youth experiencing homelessness, and thus increase their prospects for positive future outcomes.”