Performance Improvement 1996. Youth With Runaway, Throwaway, and Homeless Experiences: Prevalence, Drug Use, and Other At-Risk Behaviors

02/01/1996

Highlights

This report describes the most detailed and generalizable study undertaken to date on runaway, throwaway, and homeless youth in the United States, and their associations with high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse, suicide attempts, unsafe sexual behavior, and criminal activities, both inside and outside the home. A high correlation was found between runaway, throwaway, and homeless experience and high-risk behaviors. Researchers concluded that community-based youth shelter services, including prevention, intervention, and treatment components, are critical to this vulnerable population.

Purpose

This study was undertaken in response to a congressional mandate "to support research on illicit drug use by runaway and homeless youth, the effects on such youth of drug abuse by family members, and any correlation between such use and attempts at suicide" (Public Law 100-690, Section 3511[a][6]). It is the first national study of substance use, suicide, and other at-risk behaviors among youth with runaway, throwaway, and homeless experiences. The study is also the first nationally representative survey on substance use and other at-risk behaviors among youth residing in both federally and nonfederally funded shelters. In addition, it is the first study of its kind with a multicity sample of street youth.

Background

Runaway, throwaway, and homeless youth comprise a vulnerable population at risk for substance abuse, suicide, sexual exploitation, and physical violence. Because of the need for valid, national statistics about these young people, researchers sought to determine the prevalence of such high-risk behaviors in this population, the extent of exposure to drug prevention efforts and treatment services, needs for and access to health care, the relationship between substance use by youth and their families and youth suicide attempts and other risky behaviors, and the number of available youth shelter beds and the proportion of beds occupied.

Methods

The study was conducted by the Research Triangle Institute under a contract with the Research, Demonstration, and Evaluation Branch of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF). Four data collection components were developed. The first component was a survey conducted in the fall of 1992 of 640 youth between the ages of 12 and 21 who were residing in 23 federally and nonfederally funded youth shelters located in 17 urban areas. The sample was nationally representative.

The second component was a purposive survey of 600 youth who reported a runaway or homeless episode in the previous 12 months. These young people were found on streets or in other public places in 10 urban areas. A small substudy designed to validate self-reports of substance use also was undertaken.

The third component was a probability sample of youth in households surveyed through an interagency agreement between ACYF and the National Center for Health Statistics. Nine questions concerning runaway experiences were added to the Youth Risk Behavior Supplement of the National Health Interview Survey. In 1992 and 1993, 6,496 youth between the ages of 12 and 17 responded to in-home audiocassette interviews.

The fourth component was a mailed survey to directors of a nationally representative sample of youth shelters in 1992 and 1993. Surveys were returned by 160 shelter directors, an overall response rate of 97 percent from directors of eligible shelters.

Findings

Researchers found that many youth in the shelter and street study components reported runaway, throwaway, and homeless experiences. Single parents were raising 52 percent of the youth in the shelter component (48 percent in the street component). In the household component, 34 percent of youth did not live with both parents. In the 30 days prior to leaving home, 32 percent of youth in the shelter component (46 percent in the street component) had at least one family member who got drunk or used marijuana or other drugs.

Fifty-six percent of youths in the street component had never used a shelter. In the household component, 75 percent of youth with a runaway experience had not used either a youth or an adult shelter. An average of 10 beds were available in shelters serving only youth aged 12 to 17, while an average of 28 beds were available in shelters serving youth aged 12 to 21. On any given night, an average of 55 percent of the beds in youth shelters were occupied. Only 10 percent of youth in the shelter component and 14 percent of youth in the street component had ever been turned away from a shelter.

In the household component, lifetime substance use among youth with runaway and homeless experiences was high compared with other youth. Eighteen percent of substance users in the shelter component had been in treatment for an alcohol- or drug-related problem (24 percent in the street component). Of the young people who had ever received treatment, 44 percent of those in the shelter component (23 percent in the street component) were in treatment when data were collected.

Suicide attempts were reported by 26 percent of youth in the shelter component and 32 percent in the street component. More youth reported attempting suicide at home than away from home.

Many young people had been robbed (12 percent in the shelter component, 30 percent in the street component), assaulted (15 percent, shelter; 29 percent, street), or sexually victimized (8 percent, shelter; 14 percent, street). Sex was traded for money, food, shelter, or drugs by 7 percent of the shelter component and 21 percent of the street component. Reported crimes committed by youth in the study included theft-related activity (66 percent, shelter; 81 percent, street); assault-related activity (30 percent, shelter; 42 percent, street); and drug-related activities (32 percent, shelter; 50 percent, street). In the household component, youth with any runaway experience were three times as likely as other youth to have carried a weapon in the past 30 days and to have been in a physical fight in the past year.

In the household component, youth with any runaway experience were four times as likely as other youth to ever have had sexual intercourse. At the time of the interview, 12 percent of the females in the shelter and street components were pregnant; 41 percent of females in the shelter component (50 percent in the street component) reported having ever been pregnant.

A strong relationship was found between youth substance use and suicide attempts. Having at least one family member who got drunk or used marijuana or other drugs in the 30 days before a youth left home substantially increased the likelihood that the youth had ever attempted suicide.

Use of Results

This study should be of interest to Federal and State policymakers, community leaders, residential and outreach service providers, law enforcement officials, and other individuals concerned for the well-being of this population. Findings may be useful in shaping public policy, directing resources to this population and their families, improving the design and delivery of prevention and treatment services, strengthening community-based systems and linkages, and undertaking additional research.

Agency sponsor:

Administration on Children, Youth and Families

Federal contact:

James Griffin, Ph.D.
202/205-8138
PIC ID: 3871

Performer organization:

Research Triangle Institute, Research Triangle Park, NC