As hard as it is for homeless adults, teens who live on the streets face even greater challenges. Runaway teenagers enter a world that’s filled with uncertainty, danger, and a limited ability to earn a living or provide for basic necessities. Each teen’s situation is different and so are their respective needs. Programs for homeless and runaway youth are designed to provide the level of support and services needed to help teens find safe and secure living conditions as well as help for the family, when possible.
Homeless and Runaway Youth – A Brief History
It may come as a surprise to hear that homelessness among youth in the United States has been around almost as long as the United States has. In the late 1700s, when settlers started heading west, more than a few adolescents struck out on their own in hopes of making a life for themselves. By the 1800s, teenage homelessness became widespread among the poor immigrant youths whose families could no longer afford to take care of them.
The Great Depression and the 1960s saw increasing numbers of teenage homelessness. And while economic problems and teenagers going out on their own were the primary reasons for homeless youth, the 1970s and 80s saw more and more teens forced out of their homes or abandoned. By the 1990s, family dysfunction became the most common reason for homelessness among teens.
Today, the need for programs for homeless and runaway youth has never been greater. Fortunately, more than a few agencies and organizations have stepped up to help. Each teen’s experience is unique so there’s no one-size-fits-all program that works for everyone. If you’re a teen in need of assistance, it may help to get a better idea of what types of services can best meet your needs. The same goes for adults or friends trying to find help for someone you know.
Rates of Homeless and Runaway Youth
Youth runaway programs and teen homeless shelters face an ongoing challenge in meeting the needs of homeless and runaway youth. Youth who lack parental supervision, basic necessities, and money to live on include preteens as well as teenagers, many of whom are forced to create families of their own on the streets.
Here are just a few statistics to keep in mind:
- An estimated 1.6 million to 2.8 million teens run away each year
- The year 2017 saw 27,000 reported cases of missing children and 91 percent of these cases were endangered runaways
- The 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress recorded a total of 35,038 homeless youth under the age of 25 on a single night in January 2019
- Out of this number, 7,564 teens were acting as parents to younger, homeless children
- Children under the age of 18 make up 11 percent of the population of runaways and homeless youth
- Compared to homeless adults, young people are 50 percent more likely to lack access to shelter
Situations That Drive Teenage Homelessness
The family unit is a child’s first and primary context for determining how he or she will interact in the world. When this unit breaks down, risk factors of all kinds take shape during the course of a child’s development. More often than not, extreme risk factors drive a child to the point of running away. High rates of physical abuse and sexual abuse in the home, emotional neglect, and overall poor parenting represent the most common reasons for teens leaving the family home.
An article appearing in the Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal compared how adolescents who ran away and their parents viewed the family home environment. Amazingly, 89 percent of the parents interviewed blamed the child for running away, taking no responsibility at all while a majority of the adolescents interviewed blamed themselves for problems in the home. Since communication breakdowns tend to run rampant in a dysfunctional home, many programs for homeless and runaway youth make it a top priority to get any existing family involved and engaged in a teen’s recovery.
Problems at School
Family dysfunction tends to have ripple effects in a child’s life and problems at school are common when problems at home start to take a toll on a child’s ability to cope with daily life. More than a few homeless and runaway teens experience a loss of interest in school and become disengaged from their peers at school. A recent study of over 15,000 records from teen homeless shelters and youth runaway shelters showed as many as 47 percent of these teens had spotty school attendance with 22 percent dropping out altogether.
Mental Health & Substance Abuse Issues
Teenagers are not immune to mental health problems, especially teens who live in oppressive or abusive home environments. While mental illness can run in families, stressful living conditions and destructive relationships create prime conditions for depression to take root, particularly in the young whose sense of self and identity is still developing. For these reasons and others, anywhere from 19 to 50 percent of homeless teenagers struggle with depression-based disorders.
The stress and pressure that comes with family dysfunction and mental health issues also leave teens highly susceptible to alcohol and drug abuse. This is especially true for homeless teens. Like adults, many teens turn to substance abuse as a means to escape from the hard realities of daily life. In turn, alcohol and drug-using behaviors can serve the same purpose for teens who run away from home with an estimated two-thirds of homeless teenagers engaging in substance abuse on an ongoing basis.
Despite our country’s growing acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender lifestyles, not everyone condones this way of life. A teen being rejected by his or her family on the basis of identity issues takes family dysfunction to a whole new level. This experience coupled with attacks from peers can easily box teenagers into a corner.
Teens who must contend with disapproving parents and peers on a day-in, day-out basis may run away from home in an effort to cope with who they are. For these reasons, teens who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender appear in high numbers within homeless communities.
Foster Care System
While the foster care system is designed to provide at-risk youth with healthy living environments, not all foster care placements are a good fit. Children and teens who come from abusive home environments require considerably more patience, attention, and care and not all foster parents can meet their needs. In turn, foster care children and teens may run away from these homes just like they ran away from their family home. The same goes for teens placed in group home environments, especially teens aged 15 and older who have the highest risk of running away.
Daily Challenges Homeless Teenagers Face
Teenagers, in general, typically don’t have the maturity and know-how it takes to earn a living, obtain housing, and manage a household on their own. For teens who’ve run away from dysfunctional home environments, it’s even more difficult to successfully integrate into modern society.
On top of their young age and lack of work experience, a teen’s ability to interact and communicate with the outside world is shaped by the home environment from which he or she ran away. Under these conditions, homeless and runaway teens face incredible challenges trying to survive on their own.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports on the range of challenges and obstacles runaway teenagers face from day-to-day. Here are just a few of them:
- Higher risk for depression
- More likely to experience trauma or violence on the streets
- Difficulty finding teenage homeless shelters
- Available adult shelters can be dangerous due to drugs, fighting, and even sexual assault
- Higher risk for attempting suicide
- Frequent exposure to gangs, which increases the likelihood of joining a gang
- Difficulty staying in school due to uncertain living arrangements
- Lack of money
- Difficulty finding legitimate work, which drives many teenage runaways to engage in illegal activities
- Lack of basic necessities, such as food, water, and personal hygiene needs
Youth runaway programs work to address the range of challenges homeless and runaway teens face.
Programs for Homeless and Runaway Youth
Resources for Help
- Hotline number: 1a800a448a3000
- Text: VOICE to 20121
- Send Email
First founded in 1921, Boys Town has a long tradition of helping homeless and runaway youth. Open to boys and girls, ages, 10 to 18, Boys Town has youth runaway programs in different locations across the country.
Each Boys Town location provides in-home family services, parenting classes, behavioral therapies, and teen residential treatment homes. Here’s a little more detail on their treatment home services and their website where teens can reach out for help on their own:
Family Home Program – If you’re a parent who’s having difficulty with a teen or fear your teen is at risk of running away, the Boys Town Family Home Program may be able to help. Teens reside in what are called single-family homes made up of six to eight boys or girls. Each home is run by married couples, called “Family-Teachers,” and full-time Assistant Family-Teachers. Family Homes are nurturing, structured environments where teens receive behavioral guidance while learning to communicate and interact with others in healthy, constructive ways.
Teens attend school year-round, carry out household chores, and participate in school-based extracurricular activities. The Family-Teachers and Assistant Family-Teacher’s roles entail providing round-the-clock supervision for the children or teens, assisting teens with their daily living responsibilities, and acting as liaisons for the teachers and parents to ensure parents are kept abreast of their child’s progress in school and at home.
National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Hotline Number: 1a800a799aSAFE(7233)
- TTY: 1a800a787a3224
- Video Phone Only for Deaf Callers: 1a206a518a9361
- Chat Hotline: https://www.thehotline.org/#
The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides emergency assistance for adult and teen victims of domestic violence involving spouses, parents, and siblings, dating violence, and patterns of physical abuse that take place in the general public. Hotline representatives provide service referrals to all 50 states, including Guam, the U. S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.
Assistance referrals cover a wide range of services, including:
- Crisis intervention
- Connecting callers with local youth runaway shelters and adult shelters
- Safety planning
- Legal assistance
- Elder abuse assistance
- Economic self-sufficiency programs
- Domestic violence education
- Hotline number: 1a800aRUNAWAY
- TXT4 HELP: Text the word “SAFE” along with your current location to 44357
- Website: https://www.nationalsafeplace.org/for-teens
Safe Place, another program administered by National Runaway Safeline, provides runaway teenagers with safe places to go during times of crisis. Safe Place consists of a network of community-based partners, such as police stations, hospital emergency rooms, local youth service providers, and fire stations where runaway teenagers can go for help. A licensed, Safe Place community partner will display a bright yellow and black, diamond-shaped sign with the words “Safe Place” in the center of the sign.
Once teens locate a Safe Place, they can tell an employee who works there what they need. The employee will then contact a local Safe Place representative who will meet with the teen. From there, the representative provides the teen with the help he or she needs, be it counseling, family mediation, or a referral to a youth-runaway shelter.
Teens can also text the word “SAFE” to 4HELP (44357) along with their city, state, zip code, and address to find the nearest Safe Place location. There’s also an option to chat via text with a professional.
Phone: 1a800a388a3888 (Monday to Friday, 8:30 to 4:00 EST)
Find a Shelter: https://www.covenanthouse.org/homeless-shelters
Covenant House offers all-around support for homeless teenagers, providing a continuum of care through their services and programs for homeless and runaway youth. Their approach is designed to help teens get back on their feet and become independent. Here are a few of the services Covenant House offers:
- Teen homeless shelters
- Educational programs
- Job training and placement
- Substance abuse counseling
- Medical care
- Mental health care
- Legal services
Covenant House also has a street outreach team that not only connects homeless teenagers with the help they need but also offers warm blankets and food. Once a teen gets situated in one of their shelters, they can then take advantage of Covenant House’s transitional housing program. Covenant House shelters are located across the United States, parts of Canada, Honduras, and Guatemala.
BCP (Basic Center Program)
Through the BCP, community-based programs are able to provide help to teens that have run away or are homeless in many ways. In addition to providing services, BCP works to help kids reunite with their families or find alternative options. Other services include: As long as 21 days of shelter, crisis intervention, shelter, clothing and food, counseling, and programs that keep track of kids after they leave the program.
For more information and to find locations, visit Family and Youth Services Bureau
TLP (Transitional Living Program for Homeless Youth)
The TLP program works to provide homeless youth with stable and safe shelter for as long as 21 months. They also work to help kids get the skills they need to live healthy, productive lives as adults.
If you are between 16 and 22, and live in a shelter, or are homeless, you likely qualify for this program.
- Runaway switchboard website – http://www.1800runaway.org/
- For information on the nearest runaway and homeless basic center for youth call – 1a800a621a4000
- Family and Youth Services Bureau’s Runaway and Homeless Youth Grant Programs
MGH (Maternity Group Homes for Pregnant and Parenting Youth)
The MGH program works to help community-based programs provide resources and facilities to young people who are pregnant or parenting, as well as their dependent children. MGH programs work to teach Family budgeting, parenting skills, nutrition and health, and child development. They also work to provide benefits that include: Parenting education that includes child safety and discipline, resources that help young people find affordable, safe, and reliable child care, living accommodations for both transitional and independent stages that are safe for children, and educational resources such as preparing for GED, vocational education and post-secondary training.
Applicants must be between 16 and 22 to qualify.
- For more information and to find locations, visit Family and Youth Services Bureau
SOP (Street Outreach Program)
The goal of the Street Outreach Program is to help local outreach workers form bonds with homeless and runaway teens in the community so the trust between youth and adults can be rebuilt and the chances that sexual exploitation of young people in these situations can be reduced. SOP offers tools and resources to support finding these young people suitable, stable housing and offer necessary services. Some of the services that SOP offers include access to emergency shelters, crisis intervention, counseling and treatment, street-based outreach and education, and additional ongoing support.
For more information, or to find a facility that supports the Street Outreach Program near you, visit Family and Youth Services Bureau.
What Can We Do to Prevent Running Away?
There are many reasons why youth run away, but much of the time, it is possible to recognize the signs and intervene. First, though, it’s important to understand some of the reasons why young people decide to run away in the first place. Here are some statistics on why running away seems to be the only option:
- 50% of the youth that live on the streets or in shelters reported that their parents either didn’t care that they were leaving or told them they should leave.
- 43% of youth that have run away reported being physically abused before they left home
- 34% of runaway young people reported having experienced sexual abuse
- 47% of homeless and/or runaway youth reported that conflicts between their parents or guardians and them were the reason for leaving.
Additionally, LGBTQ youth are much more likely to run away than heterosexual young people. This is thought to be due to lack of family support and acceptance, or being kicked out of the house.
Also, it is found that young people who ran away previously, have nontraditional families, have low achievement in school, or parents who have health issues that prevent working are at a higher risk of struggling with homelessness.
Homeless and runaway youth don’t have to stay that way. There are resources to help young people find suitable, safe housing, complete their educations, and get on track for living a thriving and productive life.
- National Center for Homeless Education at SERVE, Unaccompanied and Homeless Youth Review of Literature (1995 – 2005)
- Office of Justice Programs, The Invisible Faces of Runaway and Homeless Youth
- National Low Income Housing Coalition, The 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress
- Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Running Away From Home: A Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Risks Factors and Young Adult Outcomes
- Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, Adolescents’ and Parents’ Perceptions of Runaway Behavior: Problems and Solutions
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Youth Experiencing Homelessness
- National Runaway Safeline, Home – National Runaway Safeline
- Boys Town, Boys Town Save Children
- Family and Youth Services Bureau, National Domestic Violence Hotline
- National Domestic Violence Hotline, Home – Hotline
- Safe Place, Home
- Covenant House, Helping Homeless Children & Youth
- Family and Youth Services Bureau – BCP grantees location map
- Transitional Living Program for Homeless Youth
- Maternity Group Homes for Pregnant and Parenting Youth
- Club Experience Blog
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