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Federal Definitions

Homelessness is defined in a number of different ways. Below are federal definitions and key terms that are used when talking about runaway and homelessness youth.

The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act

The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) defines homeless youth as individuals who are “not more than 21 years of age…for whom it is not possible to live in a safe environment with a relative and who have no other safe alternative living arrangement.” This definition includes only those youth who are unaccompanied by families or caregivers.1

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 homeless 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
  2. 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).

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homelessness for their program into four categories. The categories are:

  • individuals and families who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence (includes a subset for an individual who resided in an emergency shelter or a place not meant for human habitation and who is exiting an institution where he or she temporarily resided);
  • individuals and families who will imminently lose their primary nighttime residence;
  • unaccompanied youth and families with children and youth who are defined as homeless under other federal statutes who do not otherwise qualify as homeless under this definition; and
  • individuals and families who are fleeing, or are attempting to flee, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or other dangerous or life-threatening conditions that relate to violence against the individual or a family member.2

Related Terms

Some other terms that are typically used when talking about runaway and homeless youth include throwaway 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 with no alternate care arranged.3
  • Runaway youth: Youth who have left home without parental/caregiver permission and stay away for one or more nights. A runaway episode has been 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.4 Research suggests that the experience of youth running away from home is often episodic rather than chronic with youth running away for short periods of time and returning home, in some cases multiple times.
  • Street youth: Youth who have spent at least some time living on the streets without a parent or caregiver.5
  • Systems youth: Youth who become homeless after aging out of foster care or exiting the juvenile justice system.6

Resources

The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act
The complete version, including definition, 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 grants, research, resources, and web pages with agency-specific information related to homelessness.

Homelessness Resource Exchange
The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Homelessness Resource Exchange is an online one-stop shop for information and resources on assisting people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. 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.

References

1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2008
2 HUD, 2011
3 Sedlak, Finkelhor, Hammer, & Schultz, 2002
4 Sedlak, Finkelhor, Hammer, & Schultz, 2002
5 Toro, Dworsky, & Fowler, 2007, Pergamit, 2010
6 Toro, Dworsky, & Fowler, 2007, Pergamit, 2010

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