Improving Federally-Funded Youth Programs

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Agency proposes new standards for homeless and runaway youth programs receiving federal grants.

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Thirty-nine percent of homeless individuals are under the age of eighteen, about 1.7 million American youth. While the number of young homeless people has risen in recent years, reports indicate that federal resources and oversight to support these individuals have not. To rectify this, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), recently proposed a rule that would establish new regulations and performance standards for some programs providing services to homeless and runaway youth, with particular focus on reducing waste and redundancy.

The proposal would affect homeless and runaway youth programs receiving federal grants. Under the proposed rule, the purpose of the federal grants would be to support community-based projects that prevent youth from running away or becoming homeless.

The proposal would implement significant changes to the current priority system for awards. For example, the proposal would require all homeless and runaway youth programs receiving federal grants to consent to federal monitoring. Additionally, these programs would also be required to rework staff training to include various support services, cultural and linguistic diversity, as well as to mandate background checks.

Programs receiving one of three major grants available to homeless and runaway youth programs are currently required by statute to perform outreach services. The proposed rule would additionally require these programs to coordinate with similar organizations serving the same youth.

The agency is particularly concerned with the potential tension between runaway and homeless youth programs and foster care. Under the proposed rule, the runaway and homeless youth programs would not be authorized to serve runaway foster youth; rather, the programs would be required to return those runaways to the appropriate foster care facility.

Furthermore, the proposal would implement additional requirements to ensure that these programs do not overlap with juvenile justice or child welfare systems. Because federal resources are scarce, the agency contends, it wants to prevent one program from displacing costs onto another program.

The rule would also put into place requirements for runaway and homeless youth programs to continue serving these youth after they have left the program. For example, these programs would be required to stay in contact with youth for at least six months after leaving a program. Earlier this year, U.S. News and World Report found a strong correlation between homelessness and school performance among students. According to the report, about half of all homeless students did not meet state proficiency requirements in reading or math.

The proposed rule would also introduce specific performance standards for each of the three major grant types. For example, any program receiving a basic center grant would be required to contact a parent or legal guardian of homeless youth within 72 hours. While youth run away or become homeless for many reasons, one report indicates that over half of homeless youth are told to leave the home by their parents, or they inform their parents that they are leaving but are not prevented from doing so.

Moreover, transitional living programs would need to ensure that a large portion of those youth staying in a transitional home become engaged in community service. On top of that, transitional living programs would be required to ensure that health care, including pre-natal care, is available for youth in transitional programs.

Under the proposal, the agency plans to measure outreach programs by looking at the total number of contacts the program makes with homeless and runaway youth. The agency recognizes that using the total number of contacts as a performance standard for outreach programs contains the inherent “defect of potential unreliability” and may “unfairly penalize smaller” programs. The agency seeks comment on this performance standard and asks for possible alternatives.

The Administration for Children and Families is accepting comments on its proposed rule through June 13, 2014.