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


Research overwhelmingly suggests that runaway, throwaway, and homeless youth are at higher than average risk of experiencing a wide range of deleterious outcomes. These outcomes result from exposure to stress and risk factors both before and after leaving home. Examples of stress and risk factors experienced by runaway, throwaway, and homeless youth prior to leaving home include physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; neglect; family conflict; disruptions in home life, including divorce or changes in the family structure; and substance abuse by both the youth and his or her family (Hyde, 2005; Martinez, 2006; Safyer, Thompson, Maccio, Zittel-Palamara, & Forehand, 2004; Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999a).

The effects of early negative experiences can be exacerbated by the stressful experience of homelessness (MacLean, Embry & Cauce, 1999). Examples of stress and risk factors experienced by runaway, throwaway, and homeless youth after leaving home include poor nutrition, risk of criminal victimization, lack of supervision by caring and responsible adults, and exposure to sexually transmitted infections (Ennett et al., 1999; Hammer, Finkelhor, & Sedlak, 2002; Hoyt, Ryan & Cauce, 1999; Rew, Taylor-Seehafer, Thomas, & Yockey, 2001; Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999a).

Because of the adversity experienced by runaway, throwaway, and homeless young people, there is a great need to develop effective prevention programs for at-risk housed adolescents and their families. Further, there is an equally important need for effective intervention programs to reduce the stress of being without a stable home. Research studies that identify and describe factors associated with street youth status can aid in the development of effective prevention and intervention programs. Other research needs include studies of runaway, throwaway, and homeless youth that utilize large representative samples, samples that include youth from both rural and urban areas, appropriate comparison groups, and assessment of strengths as well as problems of homeless youth (Robertson & Toro, 1999).

The present study addresses these research needs by utilizing data obtained from a large national sample of runaway, throwaway, homeless, and housed adolescents who contacted the National Runaway Switchboard (NRS) for assistance with crisis issues. This study aims to:

  • provide descriptive demographic data on a large national sample of runaway, throwaway, and homeless youth as well as help-seeking youth who are currently housed,
  • provide descriptive data on issues preceding or prompting help-seeking behavior by youth callers to NRS,
  • examine the associations between these issues and status as a street youth (i.e., runaway, throwaway, or homeless) or non-street youth (i.e., contemplating running or being in general crisis),
  • examine the relationship between the type and number of issues accompanying increases in frequency of running behavior.

To facilitate understanding of the research aims addressed by the current research project, the following section will provide background information on youth homelessness and an overview of pertinent areas of research published since 1998. A general overview of research on youth homelessness published prior to 1998 is provided by Robertson and Toro (1999). For a general review of research on the topic published since 1998, see Toro, Dworsky, and Fowler (2007) in this volume.

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