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Testimony on Youth Homelessness


Testimony on Youth Homelessness

Date Posted: 

The following testimony was delivered by CLS attorney and Independence Fellow Claire Grandison on April 28, 2016 in front of the Philadelphia City Council Joint Committees on Children and Youth and Housing Neighborhood Development and The Homeless.

My name is Claire Grandison and I am an Independence Fellow and Staff Attorney in the Public Benefits Unit at Community Legal Services, where I also co-lead the Youth Justice Project. Thank you for the opportunity to offer remarks in response to the urgent issue of youth homelessness in Philadelphia. Community Legal Services is the largest provider of free legal services in the city of Philadelphia, representing over 11,000 low-income Philadelphians each year.  CLS’s  newly formed  Youth Justice Project seeks to provide holistic and age-appropriate legal services to youth ages 16-24 who are making the transition to adulthood in the face of significant challenges including homelessness. Across our different substantive units, including housing, public benefits, employment, and family advocacy, we serve many young clients who are experiencing homelessness or would be facing homelessness but for the assistance CLS provides.

CLS’s Youth Justice Project recognizes that young people with justice system involvement, young people with disabilities, and young parents are at a particularly high risk of becoming homeless due to difficulty finding work, lack of access to public benefits, and increased financial strain. Consider Youth Justice Project client Rose, who at age 22 had been struggling with drug addiction and was given entry into a diversion program for first time drug offenders, but could not afford to pay the associated fines and costs necessary to complete the program and get her record expunged. Rose could not find a job because of her record, and could no longer afford to pay her rent. She and her two very young children became homeless, DHS got involved, and her children were removed from her care until she could show she had a stable place to live.

For young people like Rose who have been involved in the juvenile or criminal justice systems, barriers to employment and housing must be removed to increase available income and ensure housing stability. By age 23, it is estimated that 41 percent of young adults have been arrested at least once, and in Philadelphia the youth arrest rate is three and a half times the national average. Youth of color are particularly likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated.    Employers,  private  landlords,  and affordable housing providers alike often have policies that categorically exclude young people with juvenile and criminal records, despite guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)  and  the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) stating that such blanket exclusions are likely to produce a disparate racial impact and violate civil rights laws.

Youth with disabilities also face barriers to employment, housing, and shelter. Youth Justice Project client Mariana came to CLS after she lost her Medicaid and SSI disability benefits, which had been her only source of income. She had bipolar disorder, but was not able to fill her prescriptions or see her therapist and psychiatrist without insurance.  She moved among friends’ houses and a shelter frequently because her untreated illness made it difficult for her to avoid conflicts. The Youth Justice Project got her both Medicaid and continuing SSI benefits while she waits the 2 years it currently takes to get a hearing and decision in an SSI appeal.

In Pennsylvania, 3 out of 4 teen recipients of SSI disability benefits lose their benefits when they turn 18, just like Mariana. The loss of vital benefits often means that youth lose their only source of income, and Pennsylvania no longer offers a general assistance safety net to help pay necessary expenses, such as housing costs. Youth with disabilities are employed at half the rate of those without disabilities and thus face greater challenges securing other sources of income. Youth with mental illness or cognitive impairments are sometimes unable to live independently or access shelters without some level of services and supports.

Finally, young parents and their children may face homelessness due to lack of family support networks, as well as challenges obtaining affordable childcare which is necessary for young parents to work. Cash assistance programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) may provide a modest source of income to young parents if they are able to enroll and comply with program requirements, but even young parents receiving cash assistance are unlikely to be able to afford housing without additional help. When young parents and their children are thrust into homelessness, they are often forced to separate based solely on a shortage of parent/child shelter beds, foster homes, or other placements. Young parents most likely have very young children - infants and toddlers - for whom separation from their parents is highly stressful, traumatic, and damaging to their development. Lack of resources should never be a reason for the trauma of separation.

The Youth Justice Project fully supports the importance of more shelter placements for youth when they do become homeless, especially placements that take into account the need for young parents to remain with their children. Moreover, future homelessness can be prevented by ensuring access to legal representation in matters including eviction proceedings, public benefits terminations, and expungements. Holistic  and  wrap-around  supports  including  those  provided  by  the  Youth  Justice  Project  are  also necessary to help young people access all the benefits and services for which they qualify as they transition to permanent and stable housing.

CLS’s Youth Justice Project looks forward to continued partnerships with City Council and others to ensure increased access to vital legal services for youth transitioning to adulthood to prevent homelessness, and to help youth experiencing homelessness transition to permanent stable housing as quickly as possible.