Defining the Problem and the Population
Current studies suggest that the primary cause of youth homelessness is family dysfunction in the form of parental neglect, physical or sexual abuse, family substance abuse and family violence.
The term “runaway and homeless youth” encompasses individuals with varied life trajectories and reasons for finding their way to RHY programs and shelters.
- Homeless youth are typically defined as unaccompanied youth ages 12 and older (up to age 17, 21, or 24) who are without family support and who are living in shelters, on the streets, in cars or vacant buildings, or who are “coach surfing” or living in other unstable circumstances.
The National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART), conducted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Department of Justice, is one of the best sources of data on this vulnerable population.
- The most recent of these studies, published in 2002 (based on data collected in 1999) estimated that 1,682,900 youth nationwide were missing due to a runaway or throwaway episode. Fifty percent of these youth were male, and 50% percent being female, and with the majority of these youth (68 percent) were15 to 17 years of age.1
Answers to the following questions are provided below:
- How are runaway and homeless youth defined in federal statutes?
- What leads youth to become runaways or homeless?
- How does living on the street impact these youth?
- Are all homeless and runaway youth the same?
- What about youth who “age-out” of foster care?
How are runaway and homeless youth defined in federal statutes?: | Back to Top
Services to runaway and homeless youth are often framed by the legal definitions used to describe this population, and these definitions often vary by funding sources. Below are examples of three key federal funding sources for RHY programs and the corresponding definitions of homelessness.
The McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act defines a person experiencing chronic homelessness (including youth) as:
“an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.”
The Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines a person who is homeless as:
- an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and
- an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is—
- a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill);
- an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or
- a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.”
- The HUD definition excludes, “any individual imprisoned or otherwise detained pursuant to an Act of the Congress or a State law.”
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) defines a homeless youth as:
“An individual – (A) who is (i) not more than 21 years of age..., (B) for whom it is not possible to live in a safe environment with a relative; and (C) who has no other safe alternative living arrangement.” Sec. 887(3) of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act
- The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act2 expands upon these definitions and provides great insight into who these youth are, asserting that:
- Youth who have become homeless or who leave and remain away from home without parental permission, are at risk of developing, and have a disproportionate share of, serious health, behavioral, and emotional problems because they lack sufficient resources to obtain care and may live on the street for extended periods thereby endangering themselves and creating a substantial law enforcement problem for communities in which they congregate;
- Many such young people, because of their age and situation, are urgently in need of temporary shelter and services, including services that are linguistically appropriate and acknowledge the environment of youth seeking these services;
- In view of the interstate nature of the problem, it is the responsibility of the Federal Government to develop an accurate national reporting system to report the problem, and to assist in the development of an effective system of care (including preventive and aftercare services, emergency shelter services, extended residential shelter, and street outreach services) outside the welfare system and the law enforcement system;
- To make a successful transition to adulthood, runaway youth, homeless youth, and other street youth need opportunities to complete high school or earn a general equivalency degree, learn job skills, and obtain employment; and
- Improved coordination and collaboration between the Federal programs that serve runaway and homeless youth are necessary for the development of a long-term strategy for responding to the needs of this population.”
What leads youth to become runaways or
homeless?: | Back to Top
Providers of outreach, prevention, safe havens and counseling services for runaway and homeless youth are keenly aware that many of the young people who seek their services have witnessed domestic violence and/or have been victims of relationship violence, and/or child maltreatment or neglect in their homes. Current studies suggest that the primary cause of youth homelessness is family dysfunction in the form of parental neglect, physical or sexual abuse, family substance abuse and family violence. Forty-one percent of youth who have run away, have been abandoned by their parents for at least 24 hours. Prior to leaving home, 43% of youth reported being beaten by a caretaker.3 Further, Tyler (2006) states, “The majority of youth have experienced and/or witnessed physical abuse.”
A 2002 report on sexual abuse among adolescent runaways, prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that: 21-40% of homeless youth had been sexually abused compared to 1-3% of the general youth population: 1 in 3 runaways have been forced to perform a sexual act against their will; a quarter of youth who have run away had parents or caretakers who requested sexual activity and 32% had been victims of sexual assault; and runaway youth are 4 to 8 times more likely to have been sexually abused than youth in the general population, and more sexually assaulted or exploited on the streets.4 Tyler and colleagues (2000) suggested that the combination of early emotional and psychological problems that result from sexual abuse and the high-risk environment in which street youth interact results in an increased risk for sexual victimization.5
Taking with them the lessons learned, vulnerable children and youth run from families in which there is dysfunction and conflict: domestic violence, sexual or physical child abuse, addiction—only to find that these same situations play out on the streets and result in further victimization. Too often and too soon these youth are faced with the reality of survival.
In addition to abuse, neglect and family conflict, there are also other factors that contribute to youth inclination to run away from home. These include school difficulties or conflicts with teachers, problematic relations with peers, relationships with delinquent peers, teen pregnancy or parenthood, being gay or lesbian, and behavioral or mental health problems.
Research and experience suggest that the cumulative effects of distress that runaway and homeless youth experience may differ across gender. In one report, Russell (1998) found that young women were more likely to report symptoms associated with mood (i.e., depression, suicide thoughts and attempts) and anxiety disorders (trait anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder). Male street youth, on the other hand, more often reported externalizing symptoms of distress (i.e., substance abuse, conduct disorder).6
How does living on the street impact these youth? | Back to Top
Taking with them the lessons learned, vulnerable children and youth run from families in which there is dysfunction and conflict – domestic violence, sexual or physical child abuse, addiction – only to find that these same situations play out on the streets and result in further victimization. The combination of early emotional and psychological problems that result from sexual abuse and the high-risk environment in which street youth interact results in an increased risk for sexual victimization.7 Thirty percent of shelter youth and 70% of street youth are victims of commercial sexual exploitation.8 Over 162,000 homeless youth are estimated to be victims of commercial sexual exploitation in the US.9
As Tyler and colleagues have found, “Many of these young people have been exposed to domestic violence and have experienced physical abuse, both of which can have negative outcomes for their well-being. The physical abuse and assault they experience and/or witness may be internalized and become part of their interaction styles, which increases their chances of associating with others who are also violent or becoming violent themselves. The sexual abuse that they have experienced will likely increase some youths’ chances of being re-victimized.”10 Too often and too soon these youth are faced with the reality of survival. For more information on research related to runaway and homeless youth, including their experiences of relationship violence, see Section 2 of the Toolkit: Key Terms and Resources.
Are all homeless and runaway youth the same? | Back to Top
Those working with youth often differentiate between recent runaway, transitionally or episodically homeless, unaccompanied homeless and shelter using youth, and street-dependent youth. Evidence suggests that differences may exist between subtypes of homeless youth, and therefore, unique approaches to interventions are utilized in a variety of programs. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that approximately 50% of the total homeless youth population can be characterized as runaways or fleeing youth who will return home within a few days, with up to 80% returning home within a week. A smaller number of youth experience transitional periods of homelessness or short episodes of homelessness, and an even smaller percentage of youth are unaccompanied shelter users and/or street youth.11
What about youth who “age-out” of foster care? | Back to Top
Every year between 20,000 and 25,000 youth ages 16 and older transition from foster care to legal emancipation, or “age out” of the system. They enter into society with few resources and numerous challenges.12 For many youth that “age-out” or transition from an established, structured system, they share similar characteristics as other homeless youth who may be fleeing or forced from their homes, such as lack of self-sufficiency skills, lack of financial resources, mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder, physical health concerns, and greater rates of substance abuse.
Many existing programs targeted at youth who age out of foster care miss the many foster care youth who are released from the foster care system shortly before age 18 years and sent back to their family of origin. Most have not resolved the family issues that led to the youth being in foster care in the first place, and many of these youth are some of the most vulnerable, given their long time turbulent family histories, and their limited skills at coping on their own. Many youth run away from foster care before they turn 18, and the majority of runaway youth simply fall through the cracks.13
1. Hammer, H., Finkelhor, D., & Sedlak, A. J. (2002). Runaway/Thrownaway Children: National Estimates and Characteristics (NCJ 196469). National Incident Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children. Available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/183781.pdf.
3. Tyler, K. (2006). A Qualitative Study of Early Family Histories and Transitions of Homeless Youth. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. Volume 21, Number 10, October, pg 1389
4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families. (November, 2002). Sexual Abuse Among Homeless Adolescents: Prevalence, Correlates, and Sequelae. Available at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/opre/sex_abuse_hmless.pdf.
5. Tyler, K. A., Hoyt, D. R., & Whitbeck, L. B. (2000). The effects of early sexual abuse on later sexual victimization among female homeless and runaway youth. Violence and Victims, 16, 441-455.
6. Russell, L. A. (1998). Child maltreatment and psychological distress among urban homeless youth. New York: Garland.
7. Estes, R. & Weiner, N. (2001). “Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. University of Pennsylvania.
8. Tyler, K. A., Hoyt, D. R., & Whitbeck, L. B. (2000). The effects of early sexual abuse on later sexual victimization among female homeless and runaway youth. Violence and Victims, 16, 441-455.
9. Estes, R. & Weiner, N. (2001). “Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada, and
Mexico.” University of Pennsylvania.
10. Tyler, K. (2006). A Qualitative Study of Early Family Histories and Transitions of Homeless Youth from SAGE Publications: Journal of Interpersonal Violence., Volume 21, Number 10, October, pg 1389
11. National Alliance to End Homelessness (August 2009). Ending Youth Homelessness Before it Begins: Prevention and Early Intervention Services for Older Adolescents. http://www.endhomelessness.org/content/general/detail/2455
12. Allen, M. and Nixon, R. (2000). ”The Foster Care Independence Act and the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program: New Catalysts for Reform for Young People Aging Out of Foster Care.” Journal of Poverty and Policy: July-August.
13. Cortney, M. (2005). “The Transition to Adulthood for Youth ‘Aging Out’ of the Foster Care System” in On Your Own without a Net: The Transitions to Adulthood for Vulnerable Populations, edited by D. Wayne Osgood, E. Michael Foster, Constance Flanagan, and Gretchen Ruth. University of Chicago Press.