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


Running away and being thrown out of the home are among the pathways most commonly identified by public policy and research as leading to youth homelessness. Youth who have run away, perhaps only briefly, and youth who have been homeless on a long-term basis are often combined into one subgroup for research purposes (e.g., MacLean, Embry, & Cauce, 1999; Thompson, Safyer, & Pollio, 2001; Zide & Cherry, 1992). MacLean and colleagues (1999) suggest that youth who have been runaways or homeless on a long-term basis have made a choice to live on the streets rather than in their homes, and suggest that this choice likely indicates that runaway and long-term homeless youth have left a particularly aversive family environment and are confident in their ability to survive on the street. MacLean and colleagues (1999) contrast runaways and long-term homeless youth with throwaway youth, who are less instrumental in making the decision to leave home. In a throwaway situation, the parents or guardians have made the decision that the youth leave home, often because some aspect of the youths behavior is considered unacceptable to the parents or guardians (MacLean et al., 1999). However, Hammer and colleagues (2002) caution against generally viewing runaways as having left home voluntarily, as this view may not fully encompass the problems faced by runaways. For example, children and young adults who leave due to family conflict or abuse may leave to protect themselves or because they are no longer wanted in the home. The term voluntary does not properly apply to such situations (Hammer et al., 2002, p. 2).

Runaway youth comprise the largest subgroup included in the present study (approximately 38 percent). To provide a better understanding of the lives of these adolescents both before and after leaving home, the following sections provide an overview of issues pertaining to the runaway subgroup of homeless youth. Further information on homeless and throwaway youth can be found in the paper by Toro and colleagues (2007) in this volume.

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