WASHINGTON, D.C.—According to the experts there is no one reason why so many youth become runaways and homeless. Reasons often given include being forced from home, parental conflict, aging out of foster care, or being released from the juvenile justice system. To discuss the research and strategies for this social problem, the Urban Institute and the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall hosted a panel discussion April 8 on the large number of youth in America who run away or end up homeless each year.
Around 7 percent of youth, 12-17 years old, spent at least one night away from home without parental permission during the past year. Michael Pergamit, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute and an authority on runaways, said the 7 percent was the consensus of different surveys and methodologies.
Another way to view runaways is to look at the lifetime history of a youth running away. Pergamit described research from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997, sponsored by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He interviewed about 1,100 12-year-olds every year until they were 18. One in five had run away at least once, according to Pergamit, a proportion that he regards as a “startling number.” The percentage was about the same for white and black youth, and a little less frequent for Hispanic youth. Females are more likely than males to be runaways. About one-half of the runaways did it only once; about 22 percent did it twice; about 30 percent did it three or more times.
“The youth don’t identify with the term runaway,” said Hedda McLendon, deputy director of the Social Services Division at the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) based in Washington, D.C. She said they view it as “an act of emancipation,” “seeking freedom,” or “taking life in their own hands.” Ms. McLendon said that the definitions used are probably too restrictive. Spending a night somewhere without parental permission may only mean spending the night with “a boyfriend,” or “significant other,” or with an “extended family member.” Sometimes, she noted, that the youth may later be placed with the “extended family member,” so, “Can that youth be considered a runaway?” she asked.
While most people would regard 20 percent as a large number, she said the runaways might think it was too small. She also stated that using 18 years old as the cutoff between child and adult may not describe the reality well enough. She has often seen 24-25-and-26-year-olds who were not self-sufficient. “It is not really an age thing but how independent they are and how they can get those skills.”
Whatever the precise definition of a runaway one wants to use, some understanding of the problem has emerged from the practices of people who manage the problem for society. The main reason cited for runaways is “parental conflict,” said Amy Dworsky, senior researcher at Chapin Hall. The issues range from sexual activity, pregnancy, drug use, and sexual orientation.
Dworsky observed two major kinds of homeless youth: “sheltered youth” vs. “street youth.” The former tend to be younger, female and their first time homeless. The latter tend to be older, male, and chronically homeless. She said they are the more troubled population, having health issues—both mental and physical.
McLendon did not regard youth who were “couch surfing” or otherwise had shelter to be as much of a concern as a young person on the street. McLendon said that Washington had a “huge population of couch surfers.”
Dworsky stressed that often the homeless youth have no connection to an adult. “They are missing positive adult role models,” she said.
Dworsky said that most of the runaways are eventually reunited with their parents. The exceptions were those who left home because of severe abuse or neglect, or whose family left the area. McLendon said that LAYC fortunately catches 75 percent of the youth during the first episode. This permits them to do prevention work on this special group.
McLendon said multiple time runaways tend to enter the child welfare system and are likely to end up being homeless. These youth were a special focus of Bryan Samuels, who recently became a commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Before he held this position, from 2003-2007, he was involved with this problem more directly. Samuels said that when he was a welfare director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, they had a study done through Chapin Hall of multiple time runaways, whom he labeled “cyclers.”
Samuels said that there was no single cause for a “cycler” and “no single intervention was going to fix it.” Even though the “cyclers” represent only a fraction of the runaway and homeless youth, he apparently felt that solving this problem could improve things for others of the runaway, homeless youth population. By focusing hard on this special population on a daily basis—with case management, tracking each youth, compensating of care givers, and involving law enforcement—they were able to reduce the population size by one-half. The time those youth spent in the state care system declined by 40 percent.
Less Money, More Clients
Mr. Samuels made a gloomy forecast for funding of youth service providers. He said this is a “tough time” for getting money, and that it was not likely that social services for runaway and homeless youth would get new resources. Samuels said that with less resources, a more “integrated approach” will be necessary.
The moderator for the discussion, Patrick Boyle, is editor of Youth Today, a periodical for people who run youth programs. Boyle quoted a survey from 2009 of organizations serving runaway and homeless youth populations in the Southeast United States. He said 95 percent of the programs had a substantial increase in clientele, yet 85 percent had to cut staff. The majority had suffered losses in state funding, city grants, and foundation grants. None were receiving the same level of funding as they had the previous year.