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Children's Voice Article, July 2001

Life on the Run, Life on the Streets

by Peter Slavin

The kid riding in the cab of that big highway rig may be a runaway, perhaps one as young as 13. Kids who run cross-country like to hitch rides with long-haul truckers. They often head to big cities or the warm weather of Florida or southern California. They may manage to live on the streets for weeks or longer. Some girls are able to pass for much older, enabling them to arouse less suspicions and helping them get by.

Banding with other runaways, they may find an abandoned house or another place to live. Some may be lucky enough to end up in a shelter for runaways and street youth. Some find their way home again, either by choice or against their will. Many will run again and again. Some are lucky. But many runaways eventually come to harm.

The nation's runaways are legion, amounting to the populace of a big city scattered to the four winds. Yet like spies in our midst, they hide their pasts and are largely invisible. They lay low in friend' basements, shift from apartment to apartment and couch to couch, and hang out where other kids congregate. Young and restless, they are also troubled and highly vulnerable.

Runaways do not raise their hands to be counted; no one knows how many there are. Most are not in the child welfare, juvenile justice, or mental health systems and so are "lost in the shuffle," says Maria Garin-Jones, Director of Youth Services for the Child Welfare League of America. Numerical estimates tend to be in terms of the much larger category of homeless youth, generally defined to include runaway, "throwaway," and "street" youth. The proportion of young people under age 18 experiencing a bout of homelessness in the course of a year has been estimated at 5%, or more than one million minors.(1) Runaways and throwaways apparently account for the great majority. No figures appear reliable, however.

Some definitions are in order: (2)
  • Runaways are youth under 18 who are away from home at least one night without the permission of parents, guardians, or custodial authorities.
  • Throwaways have been told or forced to leave home or deserted by parents or guardians.
  • Street youth manage to live for an extended time on the streets, sleeping outdoors or in abandoned buildings. Many are long-term runaway, throwaway, or other homeless youth.
Homeless youth also include those whose families themselves are homeless, unaccompanied minors from abroad, and young people left to fend for themselves, typically because their parents are incarcerated, physically incapacitated, mentally ill, or addicted to drugs or alcohol.

The lines between runaways and other categories easily blur. Take the number of kids from Michigan who have shown up in Tuscon, Arizona, in the past two years. "Almost unanimously, the story was, 'My dad's been laid off from the auto plants, there's a lot of trouble in my home, folks are drinking, and I just decided to leave,'" reports Kevin Jackson, street outreach manager at Tuscon's Our Town Family Center. "Or the family had become homeless, and the adolescent decided it would be easier for the family to support [itself] without them around."

Are these kids runaways - or something else?

Some basic truths about the runaway issue need to be understood. First, the runaway label is misapplied to many adolescents who have left home; a great many, according to the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, are actually throwaways; others are homeless for other reasons. Second, although apparently more than half of all runaways are girls, most of those living on the streets are boys.(3)

Third, for many adolescents, running away is not a one-shot event. They flee and flee again, perhaps many times. The suburban kid who runs to a friend's house the first time may turn into a chronic runaway who eventually finds her way to the heart of the nearby city, where other rootless kids hang out.

Finally, not all runaways are the same. Being taken in by a friend or relative for a night or two is very different from having to stay with strangers or cope on the street for weeks or months. A national analysis of runaways in 1988 classified fewer than one in three as "more serious" in terms of danger or risk of harm.(4)

The Risks They Run

The risks runaways face are endless: Malnutrition, psychological disorders, HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, drug and alcohol abuse, robbery, and sexual and physical assault have all been found in high proportions among these young people. One study found the rates of major depression, conduct disorder, and posttraumatic stress were three times as high among runaway youth as their peers.(5) HIV may be 2 to 10 times as prevalent among runaway and homeless youth than for other adolescents.(6)

Jo Mestelle of the National Network for Youth started working with runaways in the 1970s. She says today the streets are much more violent and it is easier for kids to obtain illicit drugs - and the drugs are more potent and include new substances, such as heroin and Ecstasy. In addition, she says, prostitution rings actively recruit young people on the streets.

Life on the streets is a struggle for survival. Says the National Runaway Switchboard, "They may start by panhandling for change, but eventually a runaway will most likely turn to illegal means to survive; many will become involved in prostitution, pornography, drugs, stealing, and other crimes." Other kids engage in "survival sex," tacitly exchanging sex for a meal, a place to stay, or protection. Kids who have or develop intravenous drug habits they must feed are the ones called most likely to engage in crime or survival sex.

The Tuscon Scene

In Tuscon, where as many as 200 kids live on the streets in midwinter, some sleep in decaying buildings for $5 a night, and more than a dozen may crowd into a motel room for a couple of nights when it's cold, according to Jackson. They survive by panhandling, working odd jobs, and taking advantage of emergency shelters, a food box program, and hot meals at churches.

Some girls are sent across the border into Mexico to run drugs or work as prostitutes, Jackson says, "because they're young and starry-eyed and [they believe] 'Billie Joe really loves me.'" The Billie Joes, he says, use promises of glamour to snare them, then keep some in Mexico for a year or two.

Some street kids survive by finding a kind of oasis. Our Town Residential Manager Anna Clemans tells of a boy who has been on his own since he was abandoned at age 10: "He would...stay with people as long as he could. Then he would leave if things came up. But he always went to school. He graduates high school in May and is accepted into our university here."

"For some kids," she says, "that's their sanctuary, going to school. Maybe it's a job, maybe's it's a youth group. That's their sanctuary."

Jackson adds, "For some, it's just their peers. A lot of kids who end up living on the streets have found surrogate families out there. In fact, the language of the street even reflects that. They call each other 'street brother' and 'street sister.'" The young adults who keep an eye on younger kids are called "street mom" or "street dad."

"They'll say, 'I've got a home. I just don't have a house.' That home is that surrogate family... people who support them emotionally and physically out there."

Why They Run

Those in the field say kids always run for a reason. "Something has gone wrong," Jackson says. Kids are unlikely to leave a good home, he says, "unless they have some sort of emotional or psychological issues that preclude them from being attached to that family." He calls running "a cry for help," a sign of unaddressed problems at home.

Some kids run because of severe forms of everyday family conflict - difficulties with a stepparent, sexual orientation, sexual activity, or pregnancy. In blended families, for example, where women bear new children and need to concentrate on them, tensions abound. Some teenagers, given an ultimatum to toe the line, feel they are being told to leave - and do.

The usual suspects in family trouble - poverty, child maltreatment, substance abuse, and domestic violence—also figure in kids fleeing. According to two 1997 studies conducted for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 46% of runaway and homeless youth reported being physically abused, 17% reported being sexually exploited, and 38% reported being emotionally abused.(7) In a survey published by the National Association of Social

Workers (NASW), 66% of runaway and homeless youth reported having an alcoholic parent, and 25% reported having a parent who abused drugs.(8)

Clemans, who has worked with young people for 16 years, believes "the youth we work with are merely symptoms... of the problem. Young people always become the scapegoat of the issue. Very rarely is it... about them. It's about the dynamics of the whole family."

David Finkelhor, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, believes the term runaway obscures the dynamics of the problem. "When a wife is being beaten by her husband," Finkelhor notes, "we say, 'Why doesn't she leave?' But when a child is being beaten and leaves, we say, 'He's a runaway.'" Although the child's response is rational, Finkelhor adds, he or she may wind up detained by the police and classified as a delinquent.

Helping Runaways

What help is available to runaway and homeless young people is outside the traditional child protection and juvenile justice systems. Since 1974, Congress has funded three programs under the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. Funded at $84 million in FY 2001, these three programs—street outreach, basic or walk-in centers (shelters), and transitional living - operate in hundreds of communities.

Street outreach workers try to pass on information to young people living on the streets to keep them safe and healthy and show them ways to improve their circumstances. They link young people with medical and mental health treatment, counseling, and other resources and try to bring some into shelters for more intensive help.

Walk-in centers offer short-term shelter, food, clothing, and medical assistance as well as counseling to reunify families when possible and appropriate. If it is not, staff try to place a young person elsewhere or prepare him or her to live independently.

For homeless youth 16-21 who are unable to return home, transitional living programs provide housing and comprehensive social services aimed at achieving self-sufficiency. Some clients are single parents.

A number of agencies operating runaway and homeless youth programs also do prevention work with the community's youth. These programs are aimed at a range of high-risk behaviors that tempt young people, including running away. Their efforts include drop-in centers and afterschool, community service, and rite-of-passage programs, as well as in-home counseling.

A few agencies use theater to educate teenagers. For years, adolescents and young adults in Dane County, Wisconsin, have watched provocative dramas performed by their peers on issues ranging from homophobia and family violence to HIV infection. The skits, performed by past and present street kids and other teenagers, are followed by often-animated discussions, with the actors staying in character. The performers, sponsored by Briar Patch, an agency in Madison, visit schools, churches, and street kids' hangouts. After watching the performances, some kids have been known to seek out counselors to talk about similar situations they've faced.

The runaway and homeless youth agency that was the model for many others is The Bridge, in Boston, which started doing street outreach in Harvard Square in 1970. The Bridge has no shelter beds, putting kids up a few nights in the homes of local families. But it offers a broad array of services, including school, a transitional day program, a medical van, a dental clinic, substance abuse counseling, family work and advocacy, and a preemployment program. Staffed by 45 employees and 200 volunteers, mostly professionals helping in their fields, The Bridge serves about 2,000 kids annually. Under its two-phase transitional living program, 34 young people, including single mothers, can stay in communal residences and shared apartments for up to three and a half years.

A congressionally authorized study of runaway, throwaway, and homeless youth concluded that a continuum of services is needed to help prevent young people from leaving home and to protect them if they do. The study cited family preservation and support services, such as mediation and family counseling, to assist families at risk while young people are still in the home; outreach and early intervention for kids who have just left home; and drop-in programs to allow youth who have been on the street for some time to gain access to substance abuse and mental health services and shelter care.(9)

More such programs may be imperative. The teenage population is rising, an HHS official notes, and that portends an even larger runaway problem. CWLA Director Shay Bilchik responds by saying, "Our challenge is to create a greater understanding of the problem and develop more effective ways of addressing it so that demographics does not become destiny."

Peter Slavin in a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area.


1. Robertson, M.J., & Toro, P.A. (1998). Homeless Youth: Research, Intervention, and Policy. Paper from the 1998 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Available on the Internet at

2. Definitions adapted from Runaway and Homeless Youth: Toolkit for Youth Workers (Fact Sheet- September 1998) by the National Network for Youth, Washington, DC.

3. The statement that "more than half of all runaways are girls" is according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Washington, DC, Fact Sheet on Missing Children: National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (1990). The assertion that "most [runaways] living on the streets are boys" is based on information from the National Network for Youths Runaway and Homeless Youth: Toolkit for Youth Workers.

4. Reported in OJJDP, Fact Sheet on Missing Children.

5. Robertson, M.J. (1989). Homeless Youth in Hollywood: Patterns of Alcohol Use (Report No. C51). Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

6. Stricof, R.L.; Novick, L.F.; and Kennedy, J.T. (1990, November). HIV seroprevalence in facilities for runaway and homeless adolescents in four states: Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and New York. Paper presented at the Sixth International Conference on AIDS, San Francisco.

7. Westat. (1997). National Evaluation of Runaway and Homeless Youth. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF); Caliper Associates. (1997). Analysis and Interpretation of New Information Concerning Runaway and Homeless Youth. Washington, DC: HHS, ACYF.

8. National Association of Social Workers. (1992). Helping Vulnerable Youth: Runaway and Homeless Adolescents in the United States. Washington, DC: Author.

9. National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth. (1995). Youth with Runaway, Throwaway, and Homeless Experiences... Prevalence, Drug Use, and Other At-Risk Behaviors. Silver Spring, MD: Author.


Briar Patch
512 E. Washington Avenue
Madison WI 53703

The Bridge
47 West Street
Boston MA 02111

Children of the Night
14530 Sylvan Street
Van Nuys CA 91411
Hotline: 800/551-1800

National Network for Youth
1319 F Street NW, Suite 401
Washington DC 20004

National Runaway Switchboard
3080 N. Lincoln Avenue
Chicago IL 60657
Hotline: 800/621-4000

Our Town Family Center
PO Box 26555
Tuscon AZ 95726

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