Think Progress: New law office on wheels will bring legal services to homeless youth; first U.S. clinic was started by CCH

By Alan Pyke

Homeless youth unaccompanied by adult guardians are one of the country’s most vulnerable populations, and also some of the toughest for advocates and service providers to reach. On Thursday, the Hartford, CT-based Center for Children’s Advocacy (CCA) will start taking legal aid services directly to these kids using a new law office on wheels.

The new mobile legal aid clinic will seek to connect hundreds of homeless youth in the Hartford area with attorneys who can help them exercise the various rights that federal law provides unaccompanied homeless youth. Legal aid workers can help these kids enroll in school immediately even if they cannot readily obtain a comprehensive education record and access federal college aid money or health insurance systems without being able to furnish information on their parents’ finances.

“Most of these students who move around a lot, tracking down their full educational record is difficult. But federal law says they’re able to get immediate enrollment, even without proof of immunizations,” Stacy Violante Cote, the CCA staffer in charge of the new $50,000 mobile clinic, told ThinkProgress. She explained how the group recently helped one 17-year-old in the Hartford area who was referred to CCA by staffers at a youth development agency who were unsure how she could get enrolled in the high school nearest to where she was then staying. The group hopes the mobile lab will help them to make more of those kinds of connections between young people, other aid organizations, and legal resources.

“The mobile legal office really came from some of the limitations in the way that we had been getting cases,” Violante Cote said. “The difficulty we’ve found in getting cases referred to us for homeless youth is number one, most people don’t know these kids have these legal rights. They wouldn’t think there’s a legal remedy for their school problems. The kids don’t consider themselves homeless, and the staff don’t know about their rights.”

Violante Cote and her colleagues have to contend with young people’s resistance to the “homeless” label that triggers their expanded federal rights under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. That law also requires school districts to designate a homeless liaison to help eligible students from the institutional end, but while many of those liaisons are highly competent, well-informed, and attentive, they are often doing double-duty in jobs that leave little room to monitor and work with such students. The clients CCA and groups like it serve tend to think of themselves as couch-surfing or house-hopping, she said, “but the law talks about not having a permanent place to live, and many of them qualify for legal remedies they would never know they can access.”

“What our clients say is, ‘I’m not homeless, I’m not sleeping on the street.’ They have some vision of what they expect homelessness to look like,” Violante Cote said, and think of themselves as “just staying with someone for a short period of time.” Convincing someone to go see the “homeless liaison” in their school is tough given that resistance to the label. By relying on social media and traveling out to meet kids where they already are, the group hopes to shrink some of those hurdles.

Youth homelessness in general has exploded in recent years. There were over 1.25 million homeless students in public schools in the 2012-2013 school year, an 85 percent increase from prior to the Great Recession. Another recent estimate found that one in every 30 American children were homeless at some point in 2013. It is difficult to tease out a count of unaccompanied young homeless people from these broader numbers, but both Violante Cote and other experts reported seeing a steady rise in that population as well.

The CCA rolling aid unit will be the second of its kind in the country, according to the Hartford Courant. The first is in Chicago, where the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless has sought out homeless kids for over a decade in what CCH’s Beth Cunningham called “basically an off-brand minivan.”

Cunningham has overseen the project for the Chicago group for seven years, since taking the reins from another CCH legal fellow who got the mobile legal center off the ground in 2004. “We don’t have any crazy state of the art equipment. It’s more of a philosophy I think for us,” Cunningham said, stressing the same key attributes of mobile legal outreach that her Connecticut counterparts emphasized. “Youth, especially unaccompanied youth, have sort of different help-seeking mechanisms than adults,” Cunningham said, which means she and her colleagues rely on partner organizations where kids “already have a sense of safety and of trust with an organization.”

The special care and additional energy that groups like Cunningham’s and Violante Cote’s bring to unaccompanied homeless youth is vital given the basic differences in the causes of homeless for such kids. While many chronically homeless adults lost their grip on a formerly stable life, many homeless minors who aren’t under the care of an adult guardian “are fleeing dangerous situations or have been kicked out because of sexual orientation or other reasons, so they are concerned about interaction w authorities and potentially being sent back to an abusive or unsafe family situation,” Eric Tars of the National Law Center on Homeless and Poverty told ThinkProgress.

Roughly 20 percent of unaccompanied homeless youths left home over a conflict about their sexual orientation, Tars said, and 43 percent report fleeing physical abuse at the hands of a caretaker. One in four left home after a caretaker requested sexual activity. Mobile legal clinics circumvent the fear of being put back into the system that naturally comes with walking into a building to seek assistance, and provide “a feeling of security that they aren’t going to be turned over to authorities or detained against their will.”

With just two mobile legal aid clinics targeting this vulnerable population in a pair of cities, and thousands more young homeless people in harder-to-reach rural areas, there is still a long way to go to connect the country’s ballooning homeless youth population to key services. But seeing the idea begin to spread was heartening to CCH’s Cunningham. “It’s great that people are taking it up and thinking more about it,” she said. “It’s a good example of community lawyering, and catering the delivery of legal services to the needs of the population you’re trying to serve.”