Homeless and Runaway Youth in the U.S.: A Snapshot

Vol 33 No 3

The Chapin Hall at University of Chicago hosted a forum, “Youth Homelessness: What are the Challenges for Policymakers, Practitioners, and Researchers,” on December 10, 2013. The forum shared what is known about homeless/runaway youth, how service providers are meeting their needs, and challenges to serving these youth. Read on for highlights.

What is Known about Runaway/Homeless Youth

Research in this area is limited, but existing studies reveal the following characteristics of homeless/runaway youth in the U.S. 

Location: Homeless/runaway youth can be found in urban, suburban, and rural communities, although they are most visible in major cities. They may be found in shelters, living on the street, squatting in abandoned buildings, or “couch surfing” (staying at homes of friends/acquaintances.).

Racial/ethnic makeup: Some studies report an overrepresentation of Latino and African American youth, while other studies report that homeless/runaway youth reflect the race and ethnicity of the surrounding community.

Age: Studies of youth in shelters find younger-aged youth, while studies of youth living on the street find older-aged youth.

Paths to homelessness: Common paths to homelessness include: 

  • Being forced out of the home by parents
  • Aging out of the juvenile justice or child welfare systems
  • Leaving due to family conflict, such as poor relationship with a parent, sexual activity, school problems, sexual orientation, substance abuse/alcohol problems, or physical/sexual abuse

Length of homelessness: The period of homelessness varies for youth. Many youth experience homelessness for short periods, while others experience longer or multiple episodes.

Risk factors: Factors known to increase the risk of homelessness include a history of abuse/neglect, and behavior and mental health problems.

Protective factors: Factors known to protect youth from homelessness include a positive relationship with family, presence of other supportive adults, and connections with schools and other supportive institutions.

Overrepresented subgroups: A growing number of homeless/runaway youth are:

  • LGBTQ youth: these youth may experience rejection by their families due to their sexual orientation.
  • “Systems youth”: these include youth who have aged out of the child welfare system, who have been adopted but their adoptions have disrupted, and youth leaving the juvenile justice system.
  • Pregnant and parenting youth

How many youth experience homelessness: Sound information is lacking due to: 

  • Differences in research definitions and methodologies yield widely varying results and estimates are often dated. 
  • Youth often do not want to be found and many stay in places where adults or families are not present, which makes it hard to find them. 
  • Lack of coordination among systems that collect data on homeless/runaway youth being served by federally funded programs (Department of Housing and Urban Development - HUD, Department of Health and Human Services - HHS, Department of Education) also creates challenges to collecting accurate data. 
  • One night point-in-time counts required by HUD have not proved effective in counting homeless youth.

Meeting Needs

For four decades, the U.S. government has addressed youth homelessness. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 1974, responding to a runaway youth crisis, established funding for street outreach programs, emergency shelters, and transitional living programs throughout the country. These programs help get young people off the streets and reunite them with their families or help them develop the skills and competence to succeed. 

How service providers meet the needs of homeless/runaway youth today has shifted since the 1970s when programs first started. Changes include:

Expanded age of youth served: Instead of serving youth only up to age 18 or 21, many programs recognize youth age 16-24 as a distinct subpopulation (Transition Age Youth – TAY) with specific needs.

Welcoming/affirming approach: With dramatic growth in subgroups, such as LGBTQ and pregnant/parenting youth, programs are adding harm reduction/low threshold environment approaches that welcome and affirm all youth who seek help without questioning.

Broader case goals: In the 70s programs primarily worked to reunify youth with their families. Today reunification is still a goal, when appropriate, but for many youth it is not an option so other goals may be set (self-sufficiency, permanent housing, group home placement). 

Focus on independence/workforce skills: Early programs emphasized early identification, temporary shelter, crisis counseling, and family reunification. Today, the focus is shifting to helping youth attain independence through stabilization, independent living skills development, education, and employment. To compete in today’s workforce, programs recognize that youth need higher levels of education and stronger workforce skills.

Risk factors: HIV and youth violence are risks facing many homeless youth today, creating new challenges for programs. Many homeless and runaway youth also struggle with mental health and substance abuse.

Brain/adolescent development: Increased knowledge about the teen brain and adolescent development inform how providers view and serve homeless/runaway youth today. 


Building a system that effectively meets the needs of homeless/runaway youth is challenged by:

Limited research: Lack of sound data in critical areas makes it hard to understand and meet the needs of these youth, and determine if programs are effective:

  • Demographics of the homeless/runaway population
  • Where youth came from before experiencing homelessness
  • What works to successfully move youth from the streets

Funding: Insufficient funding limits how programs serve youth. For example:

  • The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 1974 (RHYA) is the only source of federal funds dedicated to homeless youth. RHYA funding levels are inadequate (e.g., the cost to operate a transitional living program (TLP) is $600,000, but the maximum grant for a TLP is $200,000).
  • Youth are not prioritized under HUD’s Continuums of Care program, a grant award program providing funding for programs that address homelessness. They also receive less priority under other funding streams (e.g., Ryan White Care Act, providing health care for those who lack financial resources while coping with HIV).
  • Little funding exists to evaluate best practices. 
  • A shift towards increased funding for subgroups (LGBTQ youth, pregnant youth) takes limited money from services for homeless youth in general. Focusing on subgroups is important but creates challenges for distributing funds. 

Adult models: Many programs that serve homeless/runaway youth are based on systems designed for adults. Many youth entering programs are unable to get services they need.

Community support: Many communities are unwilling to accept homeless youth into their neighborhoods, making it hard to locate safe housing options (shelters, group homes, transitional living programs) where youth are typicaly found.

Conflicting state and federal policies: State and federal policies on serving homeless youth may conflict. For example, one homeless client obtained supportive long-term housing, but federal subsidies that supported that program prohibited her from going to college full time. This challenged the client’s ability to work towards supporting herself.


Inroads have been made in the last four decades to help homeless and runaway youth. Research offers a picture of their general characteristics and trends to guide how programs serve them. Viewing challenges as opportunities to make changes in policy and practice can reshape the future responses to homeless and runaway youth.

This article was based on presentations by Bryan Samuels, director of Chapin Hall, Amy Dworsky, senior researcher, Chapin Hall; Sherilyn Adams, executive director, Larkin Street Youth Services; and Paul Hamann, president and CEO, The Night Ministry, Chicago, IL at the forum “Youth Homelessness: What are the Challenges for Policymakers, Practitioners, and Researchers,” December 10, 2013, Chicago, IL.

Claire Chiamulera is CLP's editor.