Washington Talks About … Homeless/Runaway Youth How Many? Where’s the Money?

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Washington, D.C. – It happens every Sunday morning all across America: Parents awaken to find that their normally responsible teenager never came home from that party last night. Is that youth a runaway?

Most parents would say no, but people who count homeless and runaway youth say yes. And therein lies a dilemma in trying to get a handle on the homeless/runaway problem and figuring out how to confront it.

A group of experts set out to help at a forum, “Runaway and Homeless Youth: Prevalence, Programs and Policy,” held earlier this month. The 90-minute discussion at the Urban institute (UI) featured a panel of two researchers, a service provider and Bryan Samuels, two weeks into his job as commissioner of the U.S. Administration on Children, Youth and Families. The event, co-hosted by Chapin Hall, drew about 100 to the UI conference room and hundreds on the Webcast.

Because of the recession and state budget deficits, the number of homeless and runaway youth  reportedly is rising while resources for them are shrinking.

Just what is the number? Recent estimates on runaways vary from 1.5 million to 2.8 million a year. Panelist Michael Pergamit took a different approach. His upcoming report, On the Lifetime Prevalence of Running Away from Home, goes beyond the typical moment-in-time snapshot data to try to figure out how many youths have “ever run away.”

Among Pergamit’s conclusions is that about one in five youths in the United States run away before age 18.

In jumped the first skeptic – yours truly, the moderator: “If you say to the average parent that out of every group of teens, say 10 teens, two of them are going to have run away from home – a lot of them [parents] are going to say no way.”

It’s true, Pergamit insisted, although “I had to convince myself this was a reasonable number” by cross-checking with other data.

The math might be solid, but here’s the issue: Like other measurements of runaways, Pergamit’s report defines running away as “staying away at least one night without their parents’ prior knowledge or permission.” That sweeps in a lot of teens who would not agree that they ran away. “Somebody who spends a night with her boyfriend can be considered a runaway,” noted panelist Hedda McLendon, deputy director of the Latin American Youth Center in Washington.

If the public, the media and lawmakers see the estimates of runaways as fuzzy – even including someone who gets trashed at a party and wisely crashes on a friend’s couch – there is a risk that the estimates will become meaningless. We’re back to not knowing the extent of the problem.

Fortunately, Pergamit’s report slices the data in various useful ways – by gender, age and ethnicity, for example – that can help focus the discussion on the youth who need services. The report notes, for example, that “about half of all runaways have only one runaway episode and return home.” Those aren’t the youths who are using most of the resources at youth shelters. On the other hand, the report says that nearly 30 percent of runaways run away three times or more. That gets us to the youths that service providers deal with most, and for whom those providers need the most support. 

Problem getting worse

However, conditions for those providers seem to be getting worse. “Service providers are seeing an increased demand,” McLendon said, while government and private funders “are not able to fund these programs like they used to.”

Last fall, a survey of 20 providers in the southeast found that 19 of them had seen a significant increase in clients, while 17 had recently had to cut their staffs. (See the Youth Today story about this problem.)

An issue brief just released by Chapin Hall (Assessing the Impact of Extending Care beyond Age 18 on Homelessness: Emerging Findings from the Midwest Study) lays out some particularly sobering statistics for former foster youth. Among them: Based on a study that’s following 732 young people in three Midwestern states, the brief says that by age 23 or 24, almost 30 percent reported that they had been homeless at least one night since exiting foster care.

(Counting  homeless youth is just as difficult as counting runaways. Panelist Amy Dworsky, co-author of the new issue brief, said she has seen estimates ranging from 500,000 to more than 1.5 million youths are homeless. Those estimates include many runaways.)

New statistics will not shake loose more government funding, what with Washington in a seemingly permanent fiscal crisis. When some audience members tried getting Samuels to promise more money, he said, “What I’d like to see us do over time is to come up with a much more integrated approach to serving young people who are on the run.”

That includes integrating such services as mental health and education – which several audience members championed, as did Samuels during his presentation, which focused on how services changed in Illinois when he ran the state’s Department of Children and Family Services.

“I don’t see that the federal government has a ton of money we can spend here,” he said.