Justice System Involvement
Youth homelessness and justice system involvement intersect in various ways and, in fact, can intertwine to form a harmful downward spiral for young people. These experiences, together and separately, can traumatize a young person and negatively impact their chances for employment, education, good physical and mental health, and economic stability later in life. They also may increase the chances that a young person will repeatedly face homelessness and detention as an adult.
The U.S.-based Coalition for Juvenile Justice notes in a 2016 brief that youth homelessness and justice system involvement “are not two distinct problems. There are specific ways in which homelessness can lead to involvement with the juvenile justice system, and vice versa.” And those who are most at risk of juvenile detention are the same young people who are most at risk of homelessness: Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ youth. The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness also reported in a 2013 publication that young people experiencing homelessness are at risk of becoming involved in criminal activities, highlighting that there is also a strong link between certain types of childhood abuse and crime.
When young people leave home for whatever reason — including violence, dysfunction, or neglect — they may find themselves couch surfing, living on the streets, or lured into a situation of trafficking or exploitation. They may commit “survival crimes,” like stealing food when they’re hungry, unlawfully trespassing to take shelter in harsh weather, or staying past dark in a public park. In the U.S., for example, 74% of youth experiencing homelessness don’t know where to go to find a safe place to sleep and will sleep wherever and whenever they can.
I’ve slept in all types of places -- trains, staircases, doorways, benches. Sometimes I would even sleep on the grass in the park. I would shoplift for food."
Most young people living homeless will commit a quality of life offense, and if they can’t pay a fine, they may face arrest or even jail. When a minor runs away from home, by legal definition they already have committed a status offense, a type of offense that can only be committed by a minor. Skipping school is another example. Generally, this kind of offense is not punishable by secure detention, but there are exceptions.
In the Latin American countries where Covenant House works, young people have limited options for escaping the poverty, lack of opportunity, and violence that surround them. Two common options -- joining a gang or migrating out of the country -- are both perilous pathways, littered with more risk of homelessness and possibility of detention, including in a foreign land such as the U.S. or Mexico.
Wherever a young person is detained, they may not be able to go home again, or may not want to go home again if violence and dysfunction caused them to flee in the first place. A youth who, prior to detention, lived with a foster family may find, upon their release, that their place in the home has been taken by another child and there is no longer room for them. A family also may refuse to take the youth back or may be prohibited from doing so because of certain restrictions, such as in public housing, which could put the entire family on the street.
Without positive intervention, the spiral of homelessness and detention can cause lasting harm to a young person whose only crime may be the fact that they have no safe place to call home. Covenant House helps youth sort through their legal issues and provides a safe place where young people can grow into free and independent adults.
Read Youth Homelessness and Juvenile Justice: Opportunities for Collaboration and Impact, Coalition for Juvenile Justice, Issue Brief, June 2016; “Why Street Youth Become Involved in Crime” in Youth Homelessness in Canada: Implications for Policy and Practice, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, 2013; UNICEF Child Alert, “Uprooted in Central America and Mexico,” August 2018; and “A Lot of Anger in Me,” WWL-TV, New Orleans, Feb, 22, 2019.