What Can We Do About Youth Homelessness?

Research highlight programs that make a difference.

Posted Nov 07, 2019

Alexander Novikov/Adobe Stock
Source: Alexander Novikov/Adobe Stock

Somewhere between 1 and 1.7 million youth under the age of 18 are homeless in the United States, with often destructive consequences. Young people who experience homelessness are at high risk for a variety of physical and mental health problems, violence and early death. 

Youth become homeless for a variety of reasons – often due to physical abuse or a caregiver’s addiction, when their families suffer financial hardships or when they are discharged from the foster care or juvenile justice system. A quarter of homeless youth identify as LGBT, and up to a quarter of homeless girls are pregnant. Many homeless youths drop out of school. Youth homelessness is also a pathway to chronic adult homelessness, which is devastating to the individual and costly for society.

A systematic review published this month by the University of Chicago takes a careful look at potential solutions to the problem of youth homelessness. The review included 62 studies that evaluated 51 programs aimed at preventing youth homelessness and supporting youth who are homeless. Here’s what they found:

  • The review evaluated three interventions that all helped to prevent youth homelessness. Each of the programs had elements in common: They all targeted youth at risk for homelessness based on their involvement with systems like juvenile justice or foster care and their life experiences; they all connected youth with a caseworker, who then would help them link to services to support their specific needs; and they all intervened before the point of crisis.
  • There was some evidence that providing short-term rental assistance with supportive services improves young people’s housing stability. But we lack good evidence on what happens to the young people after the support ends.
  • Family interventions that involve counseling and support services helped to improve youth well-being, especially around preventing risky or unhealthy behaviors.
  • Much of the research on homeless youth did not evaluate methods of ending homelessness. According to the authors, the evidence on which programs help homeless youth transition to housing stability is “very thin and broadly inconclusive.”

Jane Powers is a researcher at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research who studies the problem of youth homelessness. She has been conducting a community-based participatory research project which engages homeless youth as research partners to study the scope and nature of this problem in an upstate New York community.

“Youth homelessness is a complex multi-faceted problem, but one which is solvable,” she said. “Adolescence and young adulthood present key opportunities for intervention that can profoundly impact the lives of vulnerable youth who struggle with housing stability. Early identification and action to prevent youth homelessness and coordinated efforts to ensure that early episodes do not become recurring patterns are critical strategies. Ending youth homelessness takes a coordinated community response, one which is well worth our investment.”

The take-home message: The evidence shows there are interventions that can help to prevent youth homelessness and support youth who are homeless.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.


Morton, M. H., Kugley, S., Epstein, R. A., & Farrell, A. F. (2019). Missed opportunities: Evidence on interventions for addressing youth homelessness. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.