On day one at The National Alliance to End Homelessness conference on youth and family homelessness, my enthusiasm started to wane after eight hours of meetings. One thing is clear, though: Nobody really knows how many homeless youth there are in the country, but we can’t wait around for the research before doing something about the problem.
We know some numbers and we can do an estimate of others. According to the 2002 National Incident Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children (NISMART II), an estimate of around 1.7 million youth had a runaway or homelessness episode in 1999—the most recent year data is available. About 85 percent of these youth returned home in less than a week. It’s the other 15 percent we are concerned with—who they are and what happens to them?
Around 50,000 are served every year by runaway shelters like Bill Wilson Center. The Federal Office of Family and Youth Services Bureau, which funds the programs, feels that this number represents part of the 15 percent who don’t immediately return home. In breaking down these numbers more, researchers in California surveyed 452 youth and found:
— 42 percent left home because of conflict or fight with parents.
— 38 percent left due to financial issues.
— 29 percent had substance abuse problems.
— 20 percent had parents who were homeless.
— 28 percent were from the foster care system.
When asked what their needs were, for the top two responses, 60 percent reported food and 42 percent needed housing.
All of this is interesting, but what services work for homeless youth? I think I know some of this, but I needed my information validated. First and foremost, the research shows that youth are more likely to return home and stay home if they have a positive relationship with a parent, especially if that parent was their mother. Second, those youth who had positive peer relations at home also tended to stay home. We know the strong pull for peers during teenage years and the research shows it can indeed keep kids home.
Low barrier services are emphasized—it should be easy to get in and easy to stay in those services. Family reunification is not only important in shelters with younger kids, but even later when youth are out of their teens and may be in transitional housing services. Going home should be the goal in most situations, because the long-term success for staying out of homelessness is greatest when the kids return home. In addition, education, employment, independent living skills and many of the services for all homeless like case management and counseling are critical to success.
I am still not hearing much about integrating family homeless program with youth. I guess I will have to wait and see for tomorrow.
Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.