Homeless and Runaway Youth

Homeless and Runaway Youth


Homelessness among young people is a serious issue. Homeless youth, sometimes referred to as unaccompanied youth, are individuals who lack parental, foster or institutional care.* The National Runaway Switchboard estimates that on any given night there are approximately 1.3 million homeless youth living unsupervised on the streets, in abandoned buildings, with friends or with strangers. Homeless youth are at a higher risk for physical abuse, sexual exploitation, mental health disabilities, substance abuse, and death. It is estimated that 5,000 unaccompanied youth die each year as a result of assault, illness, or suicide.**

Data suggests that the current recession has yielded an increase in homeless and runaway youth. Between 2005 and 2008, the National Runaway Switchboard saw a 200 percent increase in calls from youth indicating economic reasons for running away from home. The Switchboard also reported an increase in the numbers of youth who were kicked out of their homes. A 2008 survey of school districts showed an increase in the number of homeless students. It is important to note that precise numbers of homeless youth are difficult to determine due to lack of a standard methodology and mobility of the homeless population.

Studies Have Shown That:
  • One in seven young people between the ages of 10 and 18 will run away>
  • Youth age 12 to 17 are more at risk of homelessness than adults
  • 75 percent of runaways are female
  • Estimates of the number of pregnant homeless girls are between 6 and 22 percent
  • Between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youth identify as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender or Questioning (GLBTQ)
  • 46 percent of runaway and homeless youth reported being physically abused, 38 percent reported being emotionally abused , and 17 percent reported being forced into unwanted sexual activity by a family or household member
  • 75 percent percent of homeless or runaway youth have dropped out or will drop out of school

Common Reasons Why Youth Become Homeless or Runaways:

  • Family problems: Many youth run away, and in turn become homeless, due to problems in the home, including physical and sexual abuse, mental health disorders of a family member, substance abuse and addiction of a family member, and parental neglect. In some cases, youth are asked to leave the home because the family is unable to provide for their specific mental health or disability needs. Still some youth are pushed out of their homes because their parents cannot afford to care for them.
  • Transitions from foster care and other public systems: Youth who have been involved in the foster care system are more likely to become homeless at an earlier age and remain homeless for a longer period of time. Youth aging out of the foster care system often have little or no income support and limited housing options and are at higher risk to end up on the streets. Youth that live in residential or institutional facilities often become homeless upon discharge. In addition, very few homeless youth are able to seek housing in emergency shelters due to the lack of shelter beds for young people and shelter admission policies.
  • Economic problems: Some youth become homeless when their families fall into difficult financial situations resulting from lack of affordable housing, difficulty obtaining or maintaining a job, or lack of medical insurance or other benefits. These youth become homeless with their families, but later can find themselves separated from them and/or living on the streets alone, often due to shelter or child welfare policies.[i]

Consequences of Life on the Street for Homeless and Runaway Youth:

  • Increased likelihood of high-risk behaviors, including engaging in unprotected sex, having multiple sex partners and participating in intravenous drug use.  Youth who engage in these high-risk behaviors are more likely to remain homeless and be more resistant to change. 

  • Greater risk of severe anxiety and depression, suicide, poor health and nutrition, and low self-esteem.
  • Increased likelihood of exchanging sex for food, clothing and shelter ( also known as "survival sex") or dealing drugs to meet basic needs. Forty percent of African American youth and 36 percent of Caucasian youth who experienced homelessness or life on the street sold drugs, primarily marijuana, for money.
  • Difficulty attending school due to lack of required enrollment records (such as immunization and medical records and proof of residence) as well as lack of access to transportation to and from school.  As a result, homeless youth often have a hard time getting an education and supporting themselves financially.
  • Homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning (GLBTQ) youth are more likely to exchange sex for housing or shelter, are abused more often at homeless shelters (especially adult shelters), and experience more violence on the streets than homeless heterosexual youth.

What are States Doing?

States have adopted a variety of policies to combat youth homelessness.  Some of these policies address the educational needs of homeless and runaway youth while others appropriate money for shelters and transitional housing.  Other policies include counseling and outreach services to already homeless youth or youth at risk of becoming homeless.

Enacted legislation:

Several states have enacted legislation addressing the issue of homeless youth. Among the highlights of enacted legislation since 2006 are:

  • Connecticut required the Department of Children and Families to review and monitor its placement of out-of-state, runaway and homeless youth and to issue an annual report to the General Assembly concerning these placements.
  • Illinois established a program of transitional discharge from foster care for teenage foster children, enabling former foster youths under age 21 who encounter significant hardship upon emancipation to reengage with the Department of Children and Family Services and the Juvenile Court, in order to secure essential supports and services available to foster youth seeking to learn to live independently as adults.
  • Indiana provided that an emergency shelter, a shelter care facility, or a program that provides services to homeless or low income individuals may provide shelter and certain other related services or items to a child without the permission of the child's parent, guardian, or custodian.
  • Kansas allowed runaway programs and homeless shelters to provide dental hygiene services to youth in their care.
  • Maine established a comprehensive program for homeless youth and runaways. The legislation also required the Department of Health and Human Services to implement the comprehensive program through performance-based contracts with organizations and agencies licensed by the department that provide street and community outreach, drop-in programs, emergency shelter and transitional living services.
  • Minnesota passed the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act.  The bill defined homeless youth as a person age 21 or younger who lacks a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence.  In addition, the bill required the commissioner of Human Services to report on homeless youth, youth at risk of homelessness and runaways.
  • Nevada required approved youth shelters to make a reasonable, bona fide attempt to notify the parent, guardian or custodian about the whereabouts of a runaway or homeless youth as soon as practicable, except in cases of suspected abuse or neglect. The bill also clarified the definition of "runaway or homeless youth" to mean a youth who is under age 18.
  • Tennessee passed a measure prohibiting a school from denying a child admission because he or she has not been immunized or is unable to produce immunization records due to being homeless.
  • Utah passed a bill requiring a person who harbors a minor who is a runaway to provide notice to the parent or legal guardian of the minor, the Division of Child and Family Services, or, under certain circumstances, a peace officer or a detention center, within eight hours from the time that the person begins providing the shelter or the time that the person becomes aware that the minor is a runaway.
  • Washington passed a measure requiring the Superintendent of Public Instruction to track additional expenditures related to transportation of homeless students.

Legislation introduced in the 2009 legislative session:

Since the beginning of the 2009 session, at least eight states have introduced legislation to combat youth homelessness.   Of these states:

  • Alaska introduced legislation requiring the governing body of a school district to comply with the requirements for continuing the public education of a homeless student in the student's school of origin and for providing comparable education and transportation services during the homelessness.
  • California introduced legislation to require counties to provide counseling services to homeless and at-risk youth.
  • Connecticut introduced a measure to study the issue of parental responsibility for damages caused by runaway youth.
  • Hawaii proposed the creation of a task force to coordinate and develop resources for homeless children.
  • Illinois introduced legislation to appropriate $1 million from the general revenue fund to the Department of Human Services for the purpose of providing shelter and transitional housing and employment assistance for homeless youth.<
  • Minnesota introduced a bill to appropriate $4 million in fiscal year 2010 and $4 million in fiscal year 2011 from the general fund to the commissioner of Human Services for the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. Minnesota also introduced a measure to appropriate $1 million for the biennium beginning July 1, 2009, from the general fund to the Commissioner of Human Services for the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act and $3 million to the commissioner to implement programs to address long-term homelessness.
  • Nebraska introduced a bill to study the issue of homeless youth in the state. The legislation will also evaluate the effectiveness of current state government programs that address homeless youth and will identify alternative strategies to help combat the growing problem in the state.
  • New Mexico introduced a bill to provide a transitional living program for homeless and runaway youth in Bernalillo county.   New Mexico also introduced a bill to appropriate $125,000 to implement a transitional living program in Bernalillo county that offers temporary shelter, board, living skills education, behavioral health services and social services to homeless and runaway youth ages 16 to 21.
  • New York introduced a bill to amend the education law to align with the provisions of the federal McKinney-Vento Assistance Act.  The bill would allow a homeless child to designate a public school as the child's or youth's school of origin and would require the school district to provide transportation for the child to the school.

Federal Policy

  • The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA), administered by the Family and Youth Services Bureau, part of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, was first enacted in 1974 and is the only federal law that focuses on unaccompanied, homeless youth. The RHYA, as currently amended, authorizes federal funding for three programs —the Basic Center Program, Transitional Living Program, and Street Outreach Program— to assist runaway and homeless youth.
  • The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 was the first major federal legislative response to homelessness.  Title VII of the Act includes provisions to ensure the enrollment, attendance, and success of homeless children and youth in school.  Under the Act schools must work to eliminate any barriers, such as transportation, that may prohibit students from attending school, and are required to appoint a liaison to work with homeless students and their families.
  • The Chaffee Foster Care Independence Program provides states with funding to support and provide services to youth who are expected to age out of foster care as well as former foster care youth ages 18 to 21.  Funds from the program can be used for housing, educational services and independent living services.
  • The Fostering Connections Act of 2008 increased federal funds available to states to extend assistance to foster youth up until age 21 as long as the youth is in school, working or has a medical condition that prevents them from participating in those activities.  Services can include housing assistance, vocational and college help, and counseling. More

Homeless and Runaway Youth: State Policy Options

  • Early Intervention and Prevention Programs: Many youth become homeless as a result of family problems and financial difficulties. As a result, young people often lack the necessary supports to help them find jobs, obtain an education and reunite with their families. States can implement a homelessness prevention program that includes counseling, family reunification services, and rent assistance.
  • Intervene with Already-Homeless Youth: Homeless youth need access to services that will help them regain stability in their lives, such as obtaining a job and affordable housing. States can provide homeless youth with access to educational outreach programs, job training and employment programs, transitional living programs, and services for mental health and life skills trainings.  States can also create commissions or task forces to examine the issue of youth homelessness and offer recommendations to the legislature on how to improve outcomes for young people.
  • Independent Housing Options: Expanding long-term housing options and providing supportive services —such as food, clothing and counseling— are examples of ways that states can help homeless youth. States can create housing programs that respond to the diverse needs of homeless youth. Youth housing programs include group homes, residential treatment, host homes, shared homes, youth shelters, and community-based transitional living programs. It is important to note that youth housing programs are more cost-effective than alternative out-of-home placements such as juvenile corrections facilities, treatment centers or jail. Funding is needed to implement transitional living programs and provide outreach services to keep youth in transition off the streets.  States should foster collaboration between programs and across agencies to ensure that young people's needs are met.
  • Enhance Services Provided by Juvenile Corrections and Foster Care Programs: Each year, roughly 24,000 youth age out of foster care with little or no financial and housing resources.  In addition, there is little attention paid to the housing needs of youth leaving juvenile correction facilities.[ii]

*Please note that many national organizations define homeless and runaway youth differently. For example, the National Alliance to End Homeless defines homeless youth as unaccompanied individuals ages 12 to 24, while the National Coalition for the Homeless defines homeless youth as individuals under the age of 18. 

**Please note that the terms "homeless" and "runaway" are used interchangeably as both groups lack adequate shelter and are at a greater risk of engaging in dangerous behaviors while living on the streets.

Bill summaries in this document were prepared using State Net, copyright© 2009 by Information for Public Affairs. If you wish to contribute information about your state or have questions about the content, please send an email to

Additional Resources

NCSL Resources

[i] Shelter Policies: When families become homeless, they may become separated due to shelter policies that don't accommodate families, single fathers or children over a certain age (particularly male children). While some cities have family shelters, the number of beds are limited. 

Child Welfare Policies: When families are homeless and there is suspicion of abuse or neglect, child welfare services may intervene and the child can be removed from the family. If this occurs, the child will most likely be placed into protective services and eventually into foster care. Unfortunately, as discussed, many of the public services available to homeless youth, such as the child welfare system, are fragmented and uncoordinated. As a result, homeless youth often become frustrated and reluctant to enter the system, resigning to a life on the streets alone. 

[ii] National Alliance to End Homelessness, "America's Homeless Youth: Recommendations to Congress on the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act,"

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