Every year, approximately 200,000 juveniles and young adults ages 10 to 24 years are released from secure detention or correctional facilities and reenter their communities. Most of these individuals are not high school graduates and most have never held a job. Many have physical, mental health, or substance abuse problems. A recent study of 1,800 arrested and detained youth found that nearly two-thirds of males and nearly three-quarters of females met diagnostic criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders (Teplin, Abram, McClelland, Dulcan, & Mericle, 2002). Yet, few youth will have received high quality services while in custody. Moreover, as if their transition back into society were not difficult enough, they are often returning to neighborhoods with high rates of poverty, unemployment, and crime (Mears & Travis, 2004).
Although relatively little is known about the process of reentry among this population, Altschuler and Brash (2004) have identified a number of challenges they are likely to confront, including problems with family and living arrangements. Some youth return to supportive homes; others do not. Still others are precluded from doing so by policies that prohibit individuals who have been convicted of certain drug offenses and other crimes from living in public or Section 8 housing (Popkin & Cunningham, 2001). Without a positive support network or stable living arrangement to which they can return, these juvenile and young adult offenders are at high risk of becoming homeless after their release. Once homeless, they may find themselves engaging in prostitution, selling or using drugs, or participating in other activities that could lead to their re-arrest.
There are no good estimates of the number of juveniles or young adults who become homeless upon release from detention or incarceration. Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth in New York City, reports that approximately 30 percent of the youth they serve have been detained or incarcerated (New York City Association, 2005). These data also indicate that 68 percent had been living with family or guardians before incarceration. Eighty percent of the youthful offenders they served had neither completed high school nor obtained a GED, and 41 percent had a history of substance use. Interestingly, 49 percent also had a history of out-of-home care placement. In some instances, their child welfare case had been closed when they were detained or incarcerated and they had nowhere else to go upon release. This is true even if they had not yet turned 18 years of age because child welfare agencies are reluctant to take these youth back into their custody, especially if they have frequently “gone AWOL” or exhibited violent behavior (Riley, 2003; Travis, 2002).
Although most studies of youthful offenders have not included homelessness as an outcome measure, at least some research suggests that they are more likely to be homeless or precariously housed than other youth. Specifically, Feldman and Patterson (2003) compared 209 court-involved youth who participated in Workforce Investment Act (WIA) programs in Seattle–King County, Washington to 419 non-involved youth who participated in the same programs between July 1, 2000 and June 30, 2002. At program entry, the court-involved youth were less likely to be living with their parents and more likely to have no permanent address. Research on homeless adults has also consistently found high rates of prior incarceration, including incarceration while the adults were juveniles (Toro, 1998).