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


The National Runaway Switchboard (NRS) is the federally designated national communication system serving runaway and homeless youth and their families, with the mission of ensuring the safety of runaway and at-risk youths and preventing runaway behavior. The hotline was established in 1971 as Metro-Help, a crisis hotline for runaway youth in the Chicago metropolitan area, and began providing services on a national level in 1974. NRS can be reached via a toll-free hotline from any state or territory, and is utilized by a number of different populations, including street youth; youth contemplating running away; youth in general crisis; and adult callers such as parents, relatives, teachers, law enforcement personnel, and social service agency staff. NRS provides prevention and intervention services through their hotline as well as through educational and outreach programs and web-based services, including a youth message board, a chat room for parents, and email communication with staff members trained in crisis intervention (NRS, 2004). Callers are referred to NRS in a variety of ways, including the phone book, social service agencies, word of mouth, television and radio public service announcements, promotional materials provided through schools or community agencies, and on the Internet through the official NRS Web site.

The major portion of direct services provided by NRS is administered to youth callers via telephone. A young adult may call the hotline seeking to utilize any of five services: crisis intervention, information and referral, message relay, conference calling, or the Home Free transportation program for runaway youth, which is administered by NRS in conjunction with Greyhound Lines, Inc. Crisis intervention is provided in a confidential, nonsectarian, nonjudgmental, and nondirective manner with the goal of empowering the youth to take control of his or her current situation and to make decisions with which he or she feels comfortable (NRS, 2001). Hotline calls are handled by staff and supervised volunteers (liners) who have, prior to taking calls independently, completed a minimum of 36.5 hours of training in active listening skills and classroom and experiential training in a solution-based crisis intervention model. The five components of this crisis intervention model are (1) establishing rapport; (2) exploring facts and feelings; (3) focusing on the main issues; (4) exploring options; and (5) establishing a plan of action.

A call log, including a checklist of issues relevant to the crisis situation, is filled out for each hotline call that involves crisis intervention. The information in this call log is based both on issues identified by the caller as contributing to the current crisis situation and issues identified by staff and liners based on the description of the situation as presented by the caller.

Many of the issues identified by research literature as correlated with or leading to runaway behavior, such as abuse and problematic family dynamics, are also identified by National Runaway Switchboard callers as prompting their help-seeking behavior. Studies of help-seeking youth who called NRS in 2004 identified issues that were mentioned with high frequency by runaways and by youth contemplating running away as well as issues that predicted status as street youth (runaway, throwaway, or homeless) or non-street youth (Molino, McBride, & Kekwaletswe, 2006a, 2006b). Issues frequently discussed by street youth included family dynamics, social issues or problems with peers, problems with youth service agencies, and school or education issues (Molino et al., 2006b). Issues frequently discussed by youth contemplating running away included family dynamics; social issues or problems with peers; problems with youth service agencies, school or education issues; and physical abuse (Molino et al., 2006b).

Further study of the NRS calls led Molino et al. (2006a) to identify issues predicting inclusion of callers in either the non-street youth or street youth category. Issues predicting status as a non-street youth caller included mental health issues of the youth, experience of emotional and verbal abuse, alcohol or drug use by the family, and suicidality of the youth. While these problematic issues were not exclusively identified by non-street youth, it appears that issues that were pressing or that led to help-seeking behavior were different for youth who were currently housed as opposed to issues identified by street youth, who were removed from the immediate household at the time of the call placed to the hotline.

Two issues were found to predict status as a street youth. One issue was family dynamics (Molino et al., 2006a). This result is consistent with current research on risk factors leading to street youth status, which suggests that the presence of disorganized or dysfunctional family dynamics is predictive of runaway behavior and homelessness among adolescents. The other predictive issue was judicial issues of the youth (Molino et al., 2006a). Judicial issues among street youth can occur for a number of reasons. For example, in the United States in 2005, an estimated 108,954 arrests were made for the offense of running away (U.S. Department of Justice, 2006). (However, the act of running away itself does not always result in an arrest. Criminal charges or consequences applied to runaways vary from state to state (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2003); further, runaways are not always noticeable to police due to their staying with friends and relatives.)

Runaway adolescents may also be arrested or taken into police custody for other acts committed while away from the home, including violation of probation, burglary, or drug dealing. Researchers emphasize that criminal offenses or illegal acts committed by runaways frequently are motivated by basic survival needs, such as food and shelter; the presence of adverse situations, such as hunger and unemployment; and a lack of opportunities for legitimate self-support (Kaufman & Widom, 1999; McCarthy & Hagan, 2001; Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999). Additionally, while running away can increase the odds of the youth engaging in delinquent or criminal behavior, it can also increase the odds of the youth being exposed to or becoming the victim of criminal or delinquent acts (Hammer et al., 2002; Hoyt, Ryan, & Cauce, 1999). For example, it was found by Hoyt and colleagues (1999) that the amount of time homeless adolescents spent living on the streets, as well as prior experience of personal assault, was associated with increased risk of criminal victimization.

The relationship between childhood victimization, running away, and delinquency was examined in a study by Kaufman and Widom (1999) that followed groups of youth forward in time and assessed each research domain. Participants who had experienced abuse and neglect were more likely to have run away, and a significant relationship was found between running away and being arrested as a juvenile. The relationship between running away and delinquency remained significant even after controlling for gender, race, ethnicity, and family social class, with victims of abuse and neglect being more than twice as likely to run away as participants in the control sample, and runaways being more than twice as likely to be arrested as juveniles in comparison to non-runaways. The authors concluded that both running away and being victimized as a child increased the risk of delinquent behavior, and that running away moderated the relationship between childhood victimization and delinquency. Because running away was indicative of high-risk outcomes, the point in time at which a youth ran away was concluded to be a critical point for intervention (Kaufman & Widom, 1999, p. 368).

Although family dynamics and judicial issues have been found to predict inclusion of callers in the street youth category, issues identified by youth callers as prompting or preceding a call to the National Runaway Switchboard generally fall into any of 25 categories. These include family dynamics, mental and physical health issues, involvement of the youth in the judicial system, and issues related to transportation. A complete listing of general problem domains and issues falling within these general domains can be found in Appendix A.

The current study goes beyond prior research on NRS callers by utilizing a large sample; combining data from multiple years; and by examining additional variables, such as caller location, callers prior experience with homelessness or having run away, and variables predicting recidivism (i.e., repeated running away) and street youth status.

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