Serving Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Erin M. Schadt /

Youth homelessness is increasing and teens who are homeless have a myriad of challenges to overcome. While the problem of teen homelessness is complicated, public libraries are finding ways to reach out and provide safe, positive programs as well as connect teens with services they need.

How many youth are homeless and why?

During the 2013-14 school year, there were 1,360,747 documented students who were experiencing homelessness, and this number has risen steadily from 795,054 in the 2007-08 school year.1 Other estimates put the number of young people experiencing homelessness at 1.7 million, making up 39% of the overall homeless population.2 While many children and youth are with their families, in 2014, more than 45,000 were unaccompanied.3

courtesy iStockThe causes vary, but young people are at far greater risk of becoming homeless if:

  • Their parents engage in substance abuse or have mental health problems.
  • They suffered or witnessed child abuse or neglect in the home. (46% of homeless youth escaped a home where they suffered physical abuse.)
  • The family has been homeless previously.
  • They identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
  • They have been in foster care. In fact, children who have been in foster care are at greater risk of becoming homeless younger and of being homeless for longer than other youth.4

Sadly, over 50% of young people in shelters and on the streets report that their parents told them to leave or knew they were leaving and didn't care.5

Life on the street is very difficult and dealing with past and present trauma takes a major toll on teens. Homeless youth suffer significant mental health problems, and they are about 75% more likely to self-medicate and abuse substances to deal with trauma and abuse.6

Connecting teens with resources

So, how can libraries provide outreach, services or programming for these teens? Chances are you are already serving teens who are experiencing homelessness, and there are ways to make sure they know the library is a welcoming place and to connect them with services.

Consider becoming a Safe Place through the national Safe Place program, which designates businesses and organizations as Licensed Safe Place Agencies. The program provides ongoing consultation support as well as signage to make your participation visible and to let youth know that if they need help your library is a place to which they can turn.

Providing a list of resources for teens in your community on your website or in print is another way to connect teens with help. Examples from other libraries of resource lists for teens include:

Denver Public Library, Teen Life

Los Angeles Public Library, Teens

Durham County (NC), Teen Resources

And for homeless individuals of all ages:

Denver Public Library, Community Assistance Resources

Researching and reaching out

If your library is ready to take the next step and provide programs and services, learning about your own community's needs and taking lessons from other libraries' experiences are both important places to start the journey.

In 2014, Rekha Kuver, Seattle Public Library (SPL), helped create a training session on youth homelessness for teen services librarians from the King County Library system and SPL. At the training, Kuver and fellow attendees heard first-hand accounts from young adults about their experience being homeless, and learned ways libraries and staff can help homeless youth.

Since attending the training, Kuver and colleagues at SPL have created a strategy to tackle the issue and have instituted many programs for teens experiencing homelessness. This includes library resource and digital literacy workshops, youth drop-ins, Queeroke/Open Mic parties, family programming at area shelters, and library card registration at partner organizations such as local encampments and organizations that serve homeless youth.

"This is challenging work and so the nuances and barriers are many, and we are certainly still working on most," says Kuver. "As with all outreach, maximizing staff flexibility so that we can be responsive to needs and get out of buildings when needed is difficult but important. Second, creating relevant and usable outcomes that reflect the impact we are making with our services can be a challenge. As needs for this audience fluctuate and the patron base is not necessarily consistent, we need to be extra thoughtful about this piece.

Teaming up across departments or units is one way to increase capacity, relying on partner orgs to co-host programs with us, and simply making this work a priority (which may mean cutting back on other work) are ways I have seen work."

Kuver says involving partner organizations that have expertise serving homeless teens is key to creating desired outcomes for the programs.

Lily Kosmicki, Circulation Clerk at Denver Public Library (DPL), says "We serve teens experiencing homelessness the way we would serve other teens … We throw after-hours events that will give teens a place to spend a few fun and relaxing hours in the nighttime. We offer a safe, comfortable space where teens can use the computer and hang out in their own teen-designated area. I think the best way of treating anyone at the library comes down to treating them no different than anyone else—so being welcoming, kind and informative to the best of your ability."

Kosmicki says DPL provides training to front-line staff such as herself, including a training by local organization Rainbow Alley that addresses teens experiencing homelessness.

Going a step further, Elissa Hardy, Community Resource Specialist at DPL, advises libraries that can to: "Hire a social worker, or contract with a social service agency to collaborate on outreach and services within the library. Ask for training from social workers as well."

And, in fact, that's just what DPL did last year. Hardy says staff at DPL recognized that they don't have the capacity to stay informed of all the community resources for people experiencing homelessness, nor do they have the training to help someone experiencing mental health or substance use issues. So, instead, the staff created a Homeless Services Action Committee. The committee advocated to hire a social worker to add to their staff, which they did in February 2015, and just this month they added a second position.

Ultimately, says Hardy, "Providing a safe and welcoming space is the most important part and libraries typically do a great job with this. That is why people come to the library!"

So much of these successful initiatives come down to outreach and partnerships. If you are unsure how to start conversations with your community, WebJunction provides many resources for expanding your knowledge base on these topics. In particular, the self-paced, free course Leaving Fort Ref: Reaching Out with Reference is an excellent starting place for assessing the needs of your community and reaching new partners.

To learn more about what it means to provide inclusive outreach to and engagement with members of your local community, register for the upcoming free webinar Community Engagement: Serving Diverse Communities Where They Are, which will be led by CiKeithia Pugh, Kuver and Hayden Bass, all from SPL, on January 28.

Additional resources

See WebJunction's collection of links to Resources on Libraries and Homelessness

A must-read series from the American Library Association’s Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA):

For more ideas on programs and services for serving the homeless of all ages, this article by Lily Kosmicki, Circulation Clerk, Denver (CO) Public Library, summarizes several efforts that were reported on at the American Library Association 2015 Annual Conference program "They're Our Customers, Too: Engaging the Homeless at Your Library." Programs at the Denver Public Library, Dallas Public Library and Salt Lake City Public Library are highlighted along with good further reading links.

Another source of ideas from libraries across the United States who are serving the homeless community is a report by PBS Newshour, "From nurses to social workers, see how public libraries are serving the homeless."


1.      Department of Education, ED Data Express:; where you can also see state-by-state statistics.

2.      Safe Horizon Homeless Youth Statistics & Facts:

3.; 11 Facts About Homeless Teens:

4.      Safe Horizon Homeless Youth Statistics & Facts:

5.; 11 Facts About Homeless Teens:

6.      Safe Horizon Homeless Youth Statistics & Facts:

7.      Young Adult Library Services Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2, Winter 2015