Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Characteristics of Help-Seeking Street Youth and Non-Street Youth. Discussion and Conclusions


Runaways comprised the largest of the five caller subgroups, which likely reflects the way in which NRS crisis intervention services are marketed. Although services are available to any youth who considers him or herself to be in a crisis situation (i.e., a situation that he or she considers to be intolerable or unmanageable), the name of the agency and the wording of promotional materials indicate that runaway youth are its target population.

Overall, callers were in their mid-teens, with the exception of the homeless subgroup, whose average age was around 18 years. It is possible that this reflects a tendency of older non-housed adolescents to think of themselves as being without a home, and of younger non-housed adolescents to think of themselves as being away from a primary home. However, this theme has not yet been directly examined in the literature.

For all five caller subgroups, the majority of callers were female. This finding is consistent with gender distributions found in other research studies on youth homelessness that utilize samples recruited through service agencies (Yoder et al., 2001). It is possible that gender distribution in this study reflects a larger theme of female street youth being more likely than males to seek assistance from formal sources of support, such as crisis hotlines. While some information was available on transgender youth, our statistics are limited because information in the transgender category was only recorded during the last year of available data. Further, because NRS provides crisis intervention to all callers regardless of gender, and because gender is, in many cases, largely unrelated to the process of providing crisis intervention, categorization of the youth as transgender is highly dependent on the caller directly disclosing such information to hotline personnel.

The crisis issues most frequently identified across caller subgroups were related to family dynamics, peer or social problems, and problems with youth or family service agencies. Problems related to family dynamics were mentioned by a majority of the total sample as well as by all three subgroups of street youth. Within the family dynamics category, problems with parents and conflict with family or household rules were identified by a majority of participants. These findings are consistent with literature on risk factors for runaway behavior (Hyde, 2005; Martinez, 2006; Safyer et al., 2004; Thompson & Pillai, 2006; Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999a).

Since disorganized or dysfunctional family systems are frequently associated with runaway behavior, it follows that effective interventions can be implemented at the family level. Furthermore, youth who have ever experienced homelessness due to running away are frequently found in a housed situation. Results from NISMART-2 indicated that most runaways are gone for less than one week, with 99.6 percent having returned within a year (Hammer et al., 2002). Based on the NISMART-2 findings, Sanchez and colleagues (2006) concluded that most youth with runaway experiences are located in their family homes. Interventions targeting these youth will likely involve the family. Additionally, because the goal of federally funded shelters is reunification of families, it is necessary to address problematic family dynamics to ensure successful long-term placement in the home (Kidd, 2003; Thompson et al., 2003). Finally, in some cases, runaway and homeless youth cite family members as providing positive support and an impetus to succeed. In these cases, maintaining positive family relationships is beneficial for runaway youth (Kidd, 2003; Kurtz, Lindsey, Jarvis, & Nackerud, 2000; Robert et al., 2005). For all these reasons, it is important that family and household factors are considered in long-term intervention plans for runaway youth. Policy recommendations suggested by researchers include the focusing of primary intervention efforts on the family, the inclusion of important family members in designing effective interventions, and the careful examination of the suitability of the home before reuniting a runaway youth with his or her family (Kidd, 2003; Riley, Greif, Caplan, & MacAulay, 2004; Robert et al., 2005; Thompson et al., 2003).

In general, street youth callers sought assistance relatively soon after leaving home. Over half of street youth callers contacted the hotline within one week of leaving home, and more than one-fifth of those callers (approximately 22 percent) contacted the hotline within one day of leaving home. In addition, for street youth callers whose general location at the time of the call was known, the majority were already receiving assistance to some extent from either a formal resource, such as police or a shelter, or a familiar resource, such as a friend or relative. Comparatively fewer callers contacted the hotline from a street area, a payphone, or the location of a pimp or dealer. This suggests that, while the participants in this study demonstrate help-seeking initiative by contacting NRS, they are also capable of locating and utilizing resources to handle their crisis situations even before receiving further aid or referrals through the hotline.

Predictors of status as a street youth included judicial issues of the youth, problems with youth or family service agencies, neglect, problematic family dynamics, and issues pertaining to school or education. The endorsing of these issues increased the odds of inclusion in the street youth category by factors of 2.02, 1.83, 1.47, 1.42 and 1.15 respectively. These results are consistent with current research suggesting that disorganized or dysfunctional households marked by high rates of verbal and physical conflict, as well as by escalating antisocial behavior on the part of the youth, are predictive of runaway behavior and homelessness among adolescents (Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999a; Hyde, 2005; Martinez, 2006). Services for street youth that target these types of issues may alleviate the hardship and stress of being homeless.

Predictors of status as a non-street youth included mental health issues of the youth, suicidality of the youth, having experienced emotional or verbal abuse, and physical health issues of the youth. The endorsing of these problematic issues by callers increased the odds of inclusion in the non-street youth category by factors of 2.38, 2.20, 1.54 and 1.42 respectively. This suggests that crisis issues that are seen as particularly stressful, or that lead to help-seeking behavior, are different for youth who are currently housed as opposed to issues identified by street youth, who are removed from the immediate household at the time of the call placed to the hotline. These types of issues may be important to address in programs aimed at preventing homelessness and promoting the overall well-being of adolescents.

The majority of street youth callers had not run away or been homeless before. For those who had previously run away or been homeless, the number of prior episodes during which they had been non-housed varied widely. The number of prior runs and prior episodes of homelessness ranged from 1 to 99 (or more); the average number of runs was approximately 4 and the average number of prior episodes of homelessness was approximately 3. A significant but relatively small correlation was found between the average number of reported general problem domains and the number of prior runs (Spearmans rho = 0.194, p < 0.01).

Regression analyses found that predictors of youth having repeatedly run away from home included problematic family dynamics, substance use by the youth, the experience of physical abuse or assault, involvement of the youth in the judicial system, problems with youth or family service agencies, peer or social issues, school or education issues, and issues related to transportation. Issues related to GLBTQ status predicted youth having never run away before (non-runner). It should be noted that frequency analyses found that repeat runners were more likely than non-runners to have reported the majority of the risk issue categories in the call log (17 out of 25 total categories). The results of the regression analyses are consistent with the results of these frequency analyses. It is likely that the lack of predictors for non-runners was affected by the tendency of repeat runners to more frequently report problems in any of the potential issue categories.

Despite the limitations of these analyses, the results provide information on the way in which the reporting of problematic issues by callers affected the odds of inclusion in the repeat runner versus the non-runner category. The risk issue categories that best predicted repeat runner status included judicial problems of the youth, issues related to transportation, and alcohol or drug use by the youth, which increased the odds of inclusion in the prior runner category by factors of 4.25, 3.44, and 2.42 respectively. While issues related to transportation predicted inclusion in the repeat runner category, they were likely to have been reported frequently among our sample due to NRS providing access to the Home Free program. The reporting of issues related to GLBTQ status increased the odds of inclusion in the non-runner category by a factor of 2.41. These results do not imply that repeat runners do not experience GLBTQ issues, nor do the results imply that non-runners do not experience the types of problems reported by repeat runners. Rather, different risk issues may be more important to or salient for youth who have repeatedly run away, as compared to youth who have not run away. It is also possible that the types of issues for which repeat runners are inclined to seek help are different from the types of issues for which non-runners are inclined to seek help.

While the analysis correctly classified a large majority of non-runners, it failed to classify a large majority of repeat runners. This suggests that, for this sample and the regression model used, we are limited in our ability to consistently predict runaway recidivism from the number or types of problem domains reported. Other factors may be more pertinent to whether or not a youth repeatedly runs away, such as prior runaway experience (Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999), the severity of the problem issues, the extent to which a youth experiences stressors as problematic, and the ability of the youth to cope with such stressors. Runaway participants in this study experienced a wide variety of problem issues in different combinations, supporting the idea that there is no typical runaway youth (NRS, 2004). If the type and number of issues are idiosyncratic to each runaway, it may not be possible to reliably predict which individuals run away, or which individuals run away repeatedly. Efforts by runaway prevention and intervention programs to generally reduce risk and increase resilience will likely reduce overall rates of runaway behavior.

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