Resources for Homeless and Runaway Youth

Homeless and runaway teenagers face a unique set of challenges that differ from someone that’s adult and homeless. Programs for homeless and runaway youth are there to provide the types of support and services that young people need to get back on their feet, and when possible, help restore and strengthen the family.

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:


Situations That Drive Teenage Homelessness

Family Dysfunction

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 Use Disorder 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 use disorder 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 use disorder on an ongoing basis.

Alternative Lifestyles

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 Use Disorder 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.

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.


Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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