Just how many youth are homeless in a given year is difficult to know. Estimates vary widely depending on how “homeless” is defined and the agerange that is used. Different sampling and estimation techniques can also yield different results. For example, Ringwalt and colleagues analyzed data collected from a representative U.S. household sample of nearly 6,500 youth,ages 12 to 17, as part of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) and found that approximately 7.6 percent had been homeless for at least one night during the past 12 months (Ringwalt et al., 1998). This would translate into approximately 1.6 million homeless youth each year. Similarly, the Second National Incidence Study of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART II), which combined data from three different surveys (the National Household Survey of Adult Caretakers, the National Household Survey of Youth, and the Juvenile Facilities Study) estimated that approximately 1.7 million youth experienced a runaway or throwaway episode in 1999 (Hammer, Finkelhor,& Sedlack, 2002). Other studies have looked at the likelihood of ever becoming homeless during adolescence. According to one estimate, 15 percent of youth will become homeless at least once before age 18 (Ringwalt, Greene, & Iachan, 1994).
Homeless youth can be found in urban, suburban, and rural areas throughout the U.S., but tend to be most visible in major cities (Robertson & Toro, 1999). Moreover, although they may be an understudied population, homeless youth in rural areas have proven difficult to recruit (e.g., Heinze, Toro, & Urberg, 2004; Thrane & Yoder, 2000). Nevertheless, few differences have been found when urban, suburban, and rural homeless youth have been compared (Cauce et al., 2000; Thrane & Yoder, 2000). Studies investigating street youth have generally been based in large metropolitan areas on the east and west coasts (e.g., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City), in part because researchers have not found large numbers of homeless street youth under age 18 in most midwestern and southern cities (Robertson & Toro, 1999).
Greenblatt and Robertson (1993) found both episodic and chronic patterns of homelessness among the youth they studied. However, the number of homeless episodes youth have experienced and the length of time they have been homeless seem to depend on whether shelter youth or street youth have been studied. Many youth in shelter samples are homeless for the first time and have not been homeless for very long (McCaskill, Toro, & Wolfe, 1998), whereas street youth tend to experience longer and more frequent episodes of homelessness (Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Yoder, 1999; Witken et al., 2005).