It is difficult to make generalizations about runaway youth as a population due to the difficulty of obtaining large random or representative samples of such individuals. Runaway adolescents may not be accessible to researchers for several reasons. First, the amount of time during which adolescents may be considered runaways may be as long as several months or years, or as brief as an overnight period during which they are not supervised by a parent or guardian. For example, under federal guidelines, if a youth is 14 years of age or younger (or older and mentally incompetent), staying away from home one night defines him or her as a runaway; if the youth is 15 years or older, staying away from home two nights defines him or her as a runaway (Hammer et al., 2002). Those youth who spend only a brief time as runaways may be absent from research samples. Further, runaway adolescents may find shelter in places not readily available to researchers, such as abandoned buildings or the homes of friends or relatives, and may thus be absent from research samples. Adolescents who are living away from home but whose whereabouts are known to their parents or guardians may not always be reported as missing, and may therefore be excluded from statistics on street youth collected by law enforcement agencies or by agencies that assist in the location of missing children. Finally, runaways may, to an uninformed observer, be indistinguishable from housed adolescents who are spending recreational time outside of their homes; therefore, runaway adolescents who blend in may not be recruited for research. Follow-up data may be difficult or impossible to obtain from runaway youth who are transient. All of these factors can affect the size of research samples of runaway youth and the generalizability of research findings from such samples.
The current study utilizes data from the National Runaway Switchboard, addressing several limitations and needs in the field of youth homelessness research as identified by Robertson and Toro (1999). These include the use of a large representative sample; the assessment of strengths as well as problems of homeless youth; the inclusion of youth from both rural and urban areas; and the use of a comparison sample of housed youth similar to non-housed youth in terms of crisis issues and help-seeking behavior. The following sections provide background on the National Runaway Switchboard and the services it provides.