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About Homeless Youth

About Homeless Youth

Teaming Up for Homeless Youth

By Dieter Schmitz and Jaclyn Pampel – April 12, 2016

A seventeen-year-old in the foster care system is trying to understand his rights to contact his biological mother from whom he has been separated for years by the court.

A fifteen-year-old who thinks she is pregnant is living on the street and wondering how and whether she can see a doctor.

Couch-surfing siblings want to stay in school on track to graduate but need to know if they can stay at their school while their address keeps changing.

These and so many other legal questions are brought to the attention of children’s lawyers and legal aid offices across the country every day. But the answers can be elusive with long wait lists at legal aid offices, overtaxed stakeholders in the children’s legal system, and few available resources that speak plainly about the rights of street-connected, homeless, or vulnerable youth. Eager to help do our part to address the legal needs of youth when and where they need answers, our firm, Baker & McKenzie, joined up with our similarly committed friends to work to address this need.

One of the big obstacles homeless youth face is a lack of understanding of the law and the options available to them. These knowledge gaps for homeless youth are both wide and deep. In addition, many nonlegal professionals who are committed to helping homeless youth also lack information about their legal rights. The key was to help craft a resource for not only youth but also social workers, shelter staff, school personnel, medical personnel, law enforcement, and anyone else willing to help them access the information they need.

Beginning in 2013, we worked with a team to create a much-needed and previously nonexistent legal resource to better serve homeless children in several states—the Homeless Youth Handbook. The handbook has become an invaluable resource for homeless youth, communities, and agencies across the country.

Facing the Gap Head-On

In 2013, a long-time pro bono partner of ours, Columbia Legal Services in Seattle, Washington, reached out to Angela Vigil, our pro bono partner and executive director, with a question: How can we better serve displaced and homeless youth who call and ask for small pieces of information about their rights? Seattle used to have a hotline, staffed by law students under lawyer supervision, for street-connected youth to call with questions. An unfortunate loss of funding ended this resource and started to further flood the phone lines of organizations like Columbia Legal Services, known for its advocacy for children and youth.

Not every youth needs a lawyer; unfortunately, even those who do may not be able to access a free legal representative, but they can educate and arm themselves with information about how to access their rights and better understand the rules of the many systems that govern them. So what was needed was a resource to help them do just that on their own, or in the company of caring community members who were willing to help, even when a lawyer was not available.

We started to brainstorm how we could help homeless youth through making them aware of the rights they have as well as the organizations committed to helping them access those rights. More than anything, though, homeless youth needed access to resources and information in a way that was understandable to them. It was clear to us that the homeless youth in Washington were faced with at least three major challenges: First, there are not enough lawyers for kids in need. Homeless youth, in particular, have very little access to legal counsel. Second, it is difficult to both find and understand the law as it relates to homeless youth. It can appear to be a web of overlapping and sometimes disjointed services and resources difficult to navigate. Finally, this challenge in finding and understanding the law as it relates to homeless youth is even more difficult for youth who may have less capacity to understand the law and how it affects them.

We realized quickly that helping homeless youth in the state of Washington included raising awareness of the great services that existed as well as giving them resources so they could seek help on their own. What resource could we put together to help them at a time when they needed it most?

 Teaming to Bridge the Gap

Creating a resource to answer the wide range of legal questions faced by homeless youth demanded the best thinking, study, creativity, and advocacy the legal community could provide—all packaged together in an easy-to-use format that can be used by youth themselves or those helping youth. Perhaps somewhat naively, we thought the resource could be a simple brochure. Instead, we quickly realized it needed to be detailed enough to provide the best answers but simple enough that the youth and all of their stakeholders could find quick and clear answers.

A deep team of lawyers and other professionals was needed to research, gather, compile, summarize, and package both the questions and the answers. It was clear that this project would benefit from the perspective of many other folks across Washington who are invested in helping one of the state’s most vulnerable populations. So we turned to our friends at Starbucks, who, led by Lucy Helm, general counsel, agreed to work hand in hand with Columbia Legal Services and Baker & McKenzie to create this handbook to serve the homeless youth community in Washington.

Under the expert guidance of the Children & Youth Project at Columbia Legal Services, the team developed 18 broad categories that could be relevant to a large population of the homeless youth. Those categories turned into the handbook’s 18 chapters: 

  • Chapter 1: Safety and Stability
  • Chapter 2: Status Offenses
  • Chapter 3: Foster Care
  • Chapter 4:Turning 18
  • Chapter 5: Housing and Contracts
  • Chapter 6: LGBTQ
  • Chapter 7: Education
  • Chapter 8: Employment and Jobs
  • Chapter 9: General Criminal Law
  • Chapter 10: Healthcare and Medical Rights
  • Chapter 11: Mental Health and Substance Abuse
  • Chapter 12: Pregnancy and Parenting
  • Chapter 13:Domestic and Dating Violence
  • Chapter 14: Identification
  • Chapter 15: Consumer and Credit
  • Chapter 16: Public Benefits
  • Chapter 17: Lawsuits in General
  • Chapter 18: Immigration

As part of each broader category, we compiled a list of questions that we anticipated many of the youth would need to answer for themselves. The team thought this question-and-answer format would provide the easiest way for the homeless youth to get answers to questions that are commonly raised. Creating a robust list of categories and targeted questions for research was a joint effort with lawyers and many others from Columbia Legal Services, Starbucks, and Baker & McKenzie, who spent countless hours to create categories and refine the questions to touch on the areas that were most pressing for homeless youth.

Once a list of categories and targeted questions was created, a group of volunteers was needed to research each chapter and write the handbook in a way that a young person (a 15- to 16-year-old) could understand. No answer could be “it depends.” No impractical answers about what the written law might technically allow but the real practice does not withstand. No law journal–like citations. Each answer had to include links to resources to help the youth or those helping them get more information. And each team needed to coordinate with other teams to make sure the handbook referenced other chapters where needed and included a glossary of terms to define any term that may not be immediately understandable. With Baker & McKenzie partner Dieter Schmitz and Alex Torres and Devon Gores at Starbucks, we set up dedicated teams for each chapter and got to work under the guidance of the experts at Columbia Legal Services.

Law, particularly in these areas, is more than what is written in black and white. Ensuring that the drafters captured not just the law but the essence of what the youth needed to know was essential to this resource. The team relied on the expert guidance of Columbia Legal Services to guide them where the practice and procedure are different than they look on paper.

The project was big—6 months and almost 1,000 hours of volunteer time from over 100 contributors, including attorneys, paralegals, communications personnel, and other professionals, resulting in the creation of a first-of-its-kind resource for homeless youth in the state of Washington. The Homeless Youth Handbook—Washington was launched in 2013. The “brochure” had morphed into a 250-page resource to help change the lives of homeless youth across the state. The handbook was created in two formats—a hard-copy resource guide and an online, searchable version. The online version was crafted to be used on mobile devices and includes active links to all resources to make additional research by the youth as easy as possible. The Homeless Youth Handbook—Washington (now, Washington Legal Issues and Options Handbook) continues to be available online.

To get the word out to those who most needed to access the resource, we undertook a joint campaign to publicize the resource, including displaying informational posters in public places around Washington and providing hard copies of the Homeless Youth Handbook in schools and libraries.

Minding the Gap Across the Country

As the ink was drying on the Homeless Youth Handbook—Washington, it was clear that this resource was absolutely essential in every state. So, the very next year, in 2014, Southern Minnesota Rural Legal Services in Minnesota agreed to team with Baker & McKenzie and another client, Ecolab, to create a handbook for the homeless youth in Minnesota. Noting that Minnesota has its own dynamic, Jim Seifert, Ecolab’s general counsel, along with Dieter Schmitz, led the effort to customize the original 18 chapters and add a 19th chapter to address the special issues faced by Native American youth in Minnesota. With impressive speed and commitment, the Minnesota Legal Issues and Options Handbook was completed. Next we moved on to Illinois.

Like the teams that developed the Washington and Minnesota handbooks, the Illinois team was formed with an expert public interest partner, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless in Illinois, and a deeply committed client, United Airlines, eager to help homeless youth. The volunteer teams worked elbow-to-elbow under the excellent guidance of our public interest partner, putting themselves in the shoes of vulnerable and lonely youth to help answer the questions they need the answers to. The result was the Illinois Legal Issues and Options Handbook.

We are currently hard at work on a handbook for California with dedicated and committed public interest partners Bay Area Legal and the Youth Law Center. Following the first annual Children’s Rights Summit hosted at Google in 2014, Google offered to team up to create the handbook for California. Like the teams that developed all the other handbooks to date, a team of diverse volunteers from Google and Baker & McKenzie are working closely to create a much-needed resource for homeless youth under the guidance of our public interest partners.

Next Up? 

Handbooks for New York and Texas are currently being researched and drafted. We expect these handbooks will be produced by late 2016. As in all prior versions, the pairing with organizations that are experts in the substantive areas is essential to the success of the handbooks. In New York, we are partnered with The Door and the Covenant House, and in Texas, with Texas Appleseed. Again, we’ve had the great benefit of partnering with dedicated corporate partners, Mondelez International and Weatherford for the New York and Texas handbooks, respectively.

A project like the Homeless Youth Handbook happens only with the dedication of a public interest partner who is a true expert on the issues, a corporate client as deeply committed to making an impact for homeless youth, and a veritable army of committed pro bono volunteers who are always at the ready to tackle complex problems. Our pro bono volunteers take on this work not because they are experts in this field but because they know how difficult it can be for homeless youth to understand their rights and because they want to use their own skills to craft something that provides accessible, practical information. We have volunteers from varied areas of expertise around our firm and at our corporate partners as well. What it takes to be successful is a team of folks who will work hard together as a team to craft a resource guide truly aimed at youth. The substantive expertise for the volunteers happens through diligent research and analysis. It’s really the commitment to helping homeless youth that is the common thread among these teams.

The Continued Role of Innovation

The Homeless Youth Handbook continues to evolve to meet the needs of those it serves. Through the first few iterations of the handbooks, we have learned that homeless youth who use the handbooks are increasingly likely to use them on a mobile device. Given that, Google, our partner for the California handbook, raised the next right question: How can technology make this resource more helpful to homeless youth? As we work on finalizing the California handbook, also under development is a “next generation” handbook for homeless youth. It will meet all the objectives we’ve set out for the first generation but will allow the user to select the issues he or she is facing currently. In response to these selections, a report will be created to target the handbook’s resources to those the youth needs. In addition to partnering with Google and Bay Area Legal, we engaged with Neota Technologies to use its interactive platform to create a “demo” version of the Homeless Youth Handbook, which we shared at the second annual Children’s Rights Summit in December 2, 2105, at Google. Stay tuned in 2016 for completion of this handbook!

We will continue to develop this resource across the country where children’s advocates say it is needed and where caring and committed corporate partners want to join us to make it happen.

Keywords: litigation, children’s rights, homeless youth, legal access, legal resources, Homeless Youth Handbook

Dieter Schmitz is a partner at Baker & McKenzie in Chicago, Illinois. 

Jaclyn Pampel is a pro bono partner in Baker & McKenzie’s Pro Bono Practice, in Palo Alto, California.