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A Way Home: Why Supporting Youth Experiencing Homelessness is Critical in Michigan

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By Jennifer Erb-Downward and Amanda Nothaft


Before the start of the pandemic, Michigan’s public schools identified 4,763 homeless youth living independent of parental support. These youth are homeless—living outside, in shelters, or bouncing from couch to couch. They are estranged from their parents, usually due to abuse, neglect, or parents’ struggles with addiction, mental health problems, or extreme poverty. Homeless youth experience multiple negative physical, mental, and behavioral health outcomes. Early intervention is imperative since the length of homelessness compounds and increases the risks of poor health outcomes, such as suicide attempts, sexual assault, exposure to violence, and human trafficking.

One critical intervention that enables unaccompanied minors to connect to services and caring adults is safe and accessible shelter. Unfortunately, only a small proportion of unaccompanied minors in Michigan are accessing emergency shelter. This brief estimates the total number and ages of high school youth who face homelessness in the state, their health risks, and use of support services in the last 12 months using data from the Michigan Department of Education, Michigan’s 2018 Annual Report on Ending Homelessness, and the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). Based on this analysis we find that the likely number of homeless unaccompanied minors in Michigan is much higher than shelter or school data suggest. Data also show that homeless youth in Michigan face much higher risks to their health and well-being and are accessing primary health care at much lower rates than their housed peers.

Key Findings

  • Michigan’s high school aged youth face significant risk for experiencing homelessness. In 2019, 5.6% of youth reported being homeless in the last 30 days. This is the equivalent of an estimated 22,444 high school youth without a stable place to live across the state of Michigan.
  • Experiencing homelessness without the support of a parent or guardian is common for youth in Michigan. Over one-third (37.8%) of youth who were homeless in the last 30 days also reported that they had run away from home, been kicked out, or abandoned in the last 30 days. At least 6,400 of these youth were minors ages 17 or younger.
  • The vast majority of homeless, unaccompanied minors in the state are not accessing shelter supports. In 2018, Michigan youth shelters served only 711 homeless, unaccompanied minors—the equivalent of just 11% of unaccompanied minors estimated to be experiencing homelessness in Michigan in 2019.
  • Homeless youth face greater risks to their health and well-being than their housed peers. Homeless youth were five times more likely to have attempted suicide, four times more likely to currently misuse prescription pain medicine, three times more likely to have been forced to have sex, and 11 times more likely to have been, or gotten someone pregnant than their housed peers.
  • Homeless youth in the state of Michigan are not connecting to primary care services. Only one-third (37.2%) of homeless youth reported seeing a doctor or nurse in the last 12 months compared to threequarters (75.7%) of housed youth.

Policy Recommendations

  • Expand shelter and transitional living services for youth experiencing homelessness or runaway (HYR): There are large gaps in service coverage across the state for youth who are homeless and unaccompanied. Since 2010, Michigan has lost six HYR programs due to nearly flat funding and increased demands, forcing families and youth in crisis to travel several hours to reach a service provider. Expanding this layer of support statewide is an immediate need as these programs are proven to help youth maintain or improve their health and educational connections.
  • Strengthen existing shelter and transitional living services for youth experiencing homelessness or runaway (HYR): Prior to the pandemic, HYR providers struggled to recruit and retain enough highly qualified workers and to address the structural and technology upgrades needed to provide highquality service in often aging buildings. The pandemic has only accentuated these issues. Funding to address HYR providers’ staffing and structural needs would allow current programs to expand their services to serve more youth while maintaining high quality care.
  • Amend Michigan’s state laws to restore alignment with federal runaway and homeless youth guidelines, enabling youth to consent for shelter services: Under federal guidelines from the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, providers can allow youth to consent for shelter services. In these circumstances, federal law stipulates that providers should, as soon as feasible and no later than 72 hours of the youth entering the program, contact the parents, legal guardians, or other relatives of each youth according to the best interest of the youth. In Michigan, however, because Youth Emergency Shelters are licensed under the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Licensing Rules for Child Care Institutions, staff must obtain parental permission within 24 hours in order to allow a young person’s admission to the institution. Because youth homelessness is a crisis of relationships– most often with their family–many youth experiencing homelessness are not able to obtain parental permission. This not only places youth back onto the streets or into unsafe home situations, it eliminates an opportunity for the institution to begin to build trust with that young person to get them engaged in other services. Amendments to Michigan’s state laws that restore alignment to federal Runaway and Homeless Youth guidelines would help homeless youth access these basic shelter services, keeping them safer, restoring family relationships, and empowering them to move forward with education and employment that can end their homelessness.
  • Allow unaccompanied minors to consent for basic medical care: Only 36% of unaccompanied minors in Michigan reported having seen a doctor or nurse in the past year. One of the principal barriers preventing these youth from accessing health care is their inability to consent for basic services without a parent or legal guardian. This means unaccompanied youth cannot consent for basic medical care for strep throat, bronchitis, an eye or tooth infection, or similar routine conditions that can become debilitating if not addressed. Michigan is unusual in this respect, as 30 states across the political spectrum have legislation allowing minors to consent for basic health care, and medical professionals including the American Academy of Pediatrics have endorsed these policies.
  • Provide support to families facing housing instability to prevent cases of homelessness: The experience of inadequate housing and homelessness is strongly linked with child welfare system involvement. Michigan must increase investment in supportive housing, including shelter diversion, family unification vouchers, and eviction diversion for families in crisis to reduce the number of preventable child neglect cases in Michigan, which are often either caused by or accelerated by inadequate housing and homelessness.
  • Increase K-12 investment into supports for students experiencing homeless and runaway: Attending school and a positive school community improves the general mental health of youth experiencing homelessness and can ensure that they have another place to access necessary physical and mental health services. Investment into school-linked physical and mental health, dedicated transportation for homeless students, and McKinney-Vento liaisons can improve K-12 outcomes for students experiencing homelessness.
  • Invest in strong transitions out of foster care and juvenile justice: Around half of youth who age out of the foster care or juvenile justice systems experience homelessness soon after their transition, increasing their likelihood of experiencing further setbacks from traumatic experiences and the likelihood that youth will become disconnected from essential physical and mental health care services. As Michigan decision-makers lead various task forces dedicated to improving juvenile justice and foster care outcomes, improving transitions out of the system, including for older youth, are an essential part of any solution.

Download PDF of full policy brief