Child runaways can find themselves in any number of difficult situations: Couch surfing, prostitution, gangs, and drug addictions. None of this is good, a fact everyone at the Urban Institute’s “Runaway and Homeless Youth: Prevalence, Programs and Policy” panel discussion on Thursday could agree upon. The disagreements came in how to solve the problem.
To begin, the very meanings of “runaway” and “homeless youth” are debatable among the panelists.
UI senior researcher Michael Pergamit defines youth runaways as under 18, while Amy Dworsky, senior researcher at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, defines it as between 12 and 24. Hedda McLendon, deputy director of the Social Services Division at the Latin American Youth Center, sees the age perimeters as arbitrary, saying it’s a matter of how independent the young person is.
Immediately, child homelessness was even more difficult than it originally seemed.
Later, McLendon notes that the word “runaway” is, at least in the eyes of many “runaways,” a misnomer. “They feel like they are emancipating themselves and seeking freedom,” she says. “They don’t label themselves runaways. I don’t think they would believe that one in five youth run away during their lifetime. But, they would believe that one in five youth have left home and not told their guardian where they were.”
Whatever you want to call them, about 1 to 1.6 million youth experience homelessness each year—though that number can be another gray area because of the unreliable ways agencies count homeless and runaway youth. For instance, one common practice is a “household count,” in which a person calls a family to ask how many times their children have run away in the past year. Dworsky says this misses young people who do not return home after leaving. Another way is counting shelter youth, but then researchers miss the kids living on friends’ couches or on the street.
Pergamit counts runaways in a thorough, longitudinal study of 1,100 12-year-olds. He interviewed them annually until they turned 18. Over the course of the six years, one in five had run away. And out of those, half ran away once and 12 percent ran way six or more times. “Youth under the age of 18 years old cannot legally be on their own, and may choose not to access services because they don’t want to be put into foster care,” Pergamit says.
Strangely, Pergamit’s research doesn’t not touch at all on why the youth were running away in the first place.
Bryan Samuels, commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says there were several reasons why a kid would run away, most of which come down to running away from something (abuse, neglect, or violence), or toward something (a boyfriend or a parent they were removed from).
And because the pathways to homelessness vary, it can be difficult for government services to keep tabs on young people without places to live. Some youth runaway from home, but 75 percent of those are reunified with their families, according to Sasha Bruce Youthwork. The other 25 percent end up in foster care, in independent living situations, or end up living on the streets. Sometimes they are thrown out of their homes because of conflict with families over sexual orientation, school attendance, or drug use. And then there are the older kids who have been emancipated from the foster care system at 18 and become homeless. “Cyclers,” as Samuels calls them, combine all these, but make up about a small percent of youth who run away, are kicked out, or enter supportive services multiple times until they reach adulthood.
The underlying issue tying together all runaways, homeless youth, and “cyclers” are how they will transition to adulthood. It’s a process that worries the panelists. “Young people learn by doing,” McLendon says. “There needs to be more attention paid to building relationships and communication. You can teach them money management, how to get a job, but if they can’t communicate with their employer, they won’t be able to keep that job.”
Patrick Boyle, editor of Youth Today and the panel moderator, noted that, because only 20 percent of children will ever run away or become homeless, this is an issue the large majority of families—and social services, and nonprofits, etc.—can easily ignore. The panelists presented no definitive remedies, despite the fact that they’ve seen the need for youth homelessness services increase drastically. “Service providers are seeing an increase in demand,” McLendon says, “and there is a need for more research to bring light to how many youth really need these services.”
Lisa Gillespie is a staff writer for Campus Progress. She is the interim editor-in-chief of Street Sense, a newspaper written and sold by the homeless.