Other Youth Topics


  1. Youth Topics
  2. Homelessness and Housing Instability
  3. Federal Definitions and Eligibility

Federal Definitions and Eligibility

Homelessness is defined in many different ways. This section includes federal definitions, information to help determine eligibility, and key terms used when talking about youth who have runaway and youth experiencing homelessness. For more information about federal programs for youth experiencing homelessness, visit Federal Programs

Note: States also have their own definitions of youth homelessness, which may determine whether youth can access services specific services in that state.  

The U.S Department of Health and Human Services

The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) defines “runaway youth” and “homeless youth” as follows:  

Runaway youth: An individual under 18 years of age who absents himself or herself from home or place of legal residence without the permission of a parent or legal guardian.  

Homeless youth: An individual [not more than 21 years of age] who cannot live safely with a parent, legal guardian, or relative, and who has no other safe alternative living arrangement.  

  • For the purposes of Basic Center Program (BCP) eligibility, a homeless youth must be less than 18 years of age (or higher if allowed by a state or local law or regulation that applies to licensing requirements for child- or youth-serving facilities).

  • For purposes of Transitional Living Program (TLP) eligibility, a homeless youth cannot be less than 16 years of age and must be less than 22 years of age (unless the individual commenced his or her stay before age 22, and the maximum service period has not ended).

  • For purposes of Maternity Group Home (MGH) program (a subset of TLP), a youth experiencing homeless must be pregnant or parenting and between the ages of 16 and 21.  

  • For purposes of Street Outreach Program (SOP) eligibility, all youth who are eligible for BCP and TLP qualify.1

These definitions include only those youth who are unaccompanied by families or caregivers.  

Six key questions to assist in determining eligibility:

  • Has the youth been removed from the custodial/parental home by a child welfare agency pending investigation of allegations/suspicions of abuse/neglect?
  • Does the youth meet the definition of runaway, homeless, and/or street youth? 

  • Is the youth in the age range of eligibility for services?

  • Is the youth pregnant or parenting?

  • Is the youth currently in foster care, child protective services, or juvenile justice?

  • What are the state and local regulations related to serving runaway, homeless, and/or street youth in your service area?

To help determine youth eligibility for Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) programs, see RHY’s tip sheet on Eligibility for RHY programs (PDF, 2 pages). If you would like more detailed information about eligibility for RHY programs, please see the RHY Act, which is available at: Runaway and Homeless Youth Program Authorizing Legislation

The U.S. Department of Education

Subtitle VII-B of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (per Title IX, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act) defines homelessness as follows: 

The term “homeless children and youths” 

  1. means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence (within the meaning of section 103(a)(1)); and 

  1. includes 

  • children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; or are abandoned in hospitals; 

  • children and youths who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings (within the meaning of section 103(a)(2)(C)); 

  • children and youths who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings; and 

  • migratory children (as such term is defined in section 1309 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965) who qualify as homeless for the purposes of this subtitle because the children are living in circumstances described in clauses (i) through (iii).2

  1. Furthermore, “the term ‘unaccompanied youth’ includes a homeless child or youth not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.” (section 726(a)(6)) 

To help determine children and youth eligibility for rights and services under the McKinney-Vento Act, see the U.S. Department of Education’s topical briefs and resources on Determining Eligibility for McKinney-Vento Rights and Services (PDF, 8 pages), or the Homelessness Liaison Toolkit and the Unaccompanied Youth Eligibility Flowchart developed by the National Center for Homeless Education. 

Note: Although state context varies, there are state and district coordinators for the McKinney-Vento Act. The state coordinator is the key link to local liaisons, required in every local education agency (LEA), and to other state education agencies (SEA), programs, and state-level agencies that serve children and families experiencing homelessness. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homelessness into four categories. The sidebar at the right summarizes HUD’s categories of homelessness. Category 3 is the only one that specifically mentions youth; however, youth are eligible and much more likely to qualify for assistance under the other categories.  

Following are several hypothetical examples that illustrate how youth might qualify under HUD’s definition of homelessness:  

  • A 20-year-old is sleeping in his car because his family was evicted from their home. This person meets the criteria for Category 1.

  • A 15-year-old has been staying with her best friend, but the friend’s father tells her that she cannot stay with them any longer and must leave tomorrow. An acquaintance has offered to let her stay with him, but she does not feel safe there. She cannot go home, and she has nowhere else to go. This person meets the criteria for Category 2.

  • A 14-year-old is staying with a family friend who has said she can stay as long as she likes, but recently the family friend has started physically abusing her. The 14-year-old lacks any safe resources or support networks to move. This person meets the criteria for Category 4.3

To help determine youth eligibility for assistance from HUD’s homelessness assistance grants programs and services, see Children and Youth and HUD’s Homelessness Definition (PDF, 4 pages). 

Related Terms

Some other terms typically used when talking about runaway youth and youth experiencing homelessness include throwaway youth, unaccompanied youth, runaway youth, street youth, and systems youth. 

  • Throwaway youth: Youth who have been asked, told, or forced to leave home by parents or caregivers and who have no alternate care arranged.  

  • Unaccompanied youth: A homeless child or youth not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian (defined in the McKinney-Vento Act). HUD uses a similar definition for their Point-in-Time (PIT) data collection, classifying “unaccompanied youth” as people under the age of 25 who are experiencing homelessness as individuals, that is, without a parent or guardian present or as a young parent with children.4

  • Runaway youth: Youth who have left home without parental/caregiver permission and stay away for one or more nights. A runaway episode is defined as being away from home overnight for youth under 14 (or older and mentally incompetent) and for two or more nights for youth 15 and older.5 

  • Street youth: Youth who have spent at least some time living on the streets without a parent or caregiver.6

  • Systems youth: Youth who experience homelessness after aging out of foster care or exiting the juvenile justice system.7


The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act 
The complete version, including definitions, of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (Title III of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974). 

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act as amended by The Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act of 2009(PDF, 50 pages) 
The complete version, including definition, of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act as amended by S. 896, The Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act of 2009. 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Homelessness 
This Department of Health and Human Services site focused on homelessness provides information on programs , research, and resources with agency-specific information related to homelessness. 

HUD Exchange 
The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HUD Exchange is an online one-stop shop for information and resources on assisting people who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of experiencing homelessness. Program guidance and regulations, technical assistance (TA) and training resources, research and publications, and more are available for use by federal agencies, state and local government agencies, continuum of care organizations, homeless service providers, TA providers, persons experiencing homelessness, and other stakeholders. 


Other Resources on this Topic


Youth Briefs

How Individualized Education Program (IEP) Transition Planning Makes a Difference for Youth with Disabilities

Youth who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and especially young adults of transition age, should be involved in planning for life after high school as early as possible and no later than age 16. Transition services should stem from the individual youth’s needs and strengths, ensuring that planning takes into account his or her interests, preferences, and desires for the future.

Youth Transitioning to Adulthood: How Holding Early Leadership Positions Can Make a Difference

Research links early leadership with increased self-efficacy and suggests that leadership can help youth to develop decision making and interpersonal skills that support successes in the workforce and adulthood. In addition, young leaders tend to be more involved in their communities, and have lower dropout rates than their peers. Youth leaders also show considerable benefits for their communities, providing valuable insight into the needs and interests of young people

How Trained Service Professionals and Self-Advocacy Makes a Difference for Youth with Mental Health, Substance Abuse, or Co-occurring Issues

Statistics reflecting the number of youth suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and co-occurring disorders highlight the necessity for schools, families, support staff, and communities to work together to develop targeted, coordinated, and comprehensive transition plans for young people with a history of mental health needs and/or substance abuse.

Young Adults Formerly in Foster Care: Challenges and Solutions

Nearly 30,000 youth aged out of foster care in Fiscal Year 2009, which represents nine percent of the young people involved in the foster care system that year. This transition can be challenging for youth, especially youth who have grown up in the child welfare system.

Coordinating Systems to Support Transition Age Youth with Mental Health Needs

Research has demonstrated that as many as one in five children/youth have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Read about how coordination between public service agencies can improve treatment for these youth.

Civic Engagement Strategies for Transition Age Youth

Civic engagement has the potential to empower young adults, increase their self-determination, and give them the skills and self-confidence they need to enter the workforce. Read about one youth’s experience in AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).

Did You Know?

HUD Categories of Homelessness // Category 1 Literal Homelessness - Individuals and families who live in a place not meant for human habitation (including the streets or in their car), emergency shelter, transitional housing, and hotels paid for by a government or charitable organization. // Category 2 Imminent Risk of Homelessness - Individuals or families who will lose their primary nighttime residence within 14 days and has no other resources or support networks to obtain other permanent housing. // Category 3 Homeless Under Other Statutes - Unaccompanied youth under 25 years of age, or families with children and youth, who do not meet any of the other categories but are homeless under other federal statutes, have not had a lease and have moved 2 or more times in the past 60 days and are likely to remain unstable because of special needs or barriers. // Category 4 Fleeing Domestic Violence - Individuals or families who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking and who lack resources and support networks to obtain other permanent housing.

Latest Resources