Researchers estimate that in any given year, 1.6 million youth between the ages of 12 and 17 spend at least one night either in an emergency shelter or on the streets-that is, in places outdoors or in improvised shelter without parental supervision, according to studies summarized by Robertson and Toro. These figures suggest that adolescents under age 18 may be at a higher risk for bouts of homelessness than adults. Street youth are predominantly young men, while young women are more evenly represented in shelters. Although most visible in large cities, homeless youth are found throughout the nation and across urban, suburban, and rural areas.
Young homeless people face special barriers to service, Robertson and Toro found. Most have survived difficult situations and are skeptical and distrustful of adults. Many youth have become accustomed to taking care of themselves and some are unwilling to come into service sites or return to a family or foster home where they could lose a great deal of control over their everyday lives. Many homeless youth have serious emotional or mental problems, while others cycle in and out of hard-core drug abuse. Robertson and Toro suggest that providers may want to first help homeless youth meet their immediate needs. Basic services can then provide a gateway to other needed services.
Typically, a teenager living on the street did not become homeless in one stroke. Rather, youth homelessness appears to be part of a long pattern of residential instability. Homeless youth consistently report repeated moves during their lifetimes and many are runaways. Many-from 21 to 53 percent across different studies reviewed-had been previously placed in foster care. The Burt study tends to back up this conclusion. More than one-fourth (27 percent) of homeless clients interviewed in the Burt study had spent time in foster care, a group home, or other institutional settings before their 18th birthday. Youth in foster care or in institutions risk becoming homeless when they age out or otherwise leave these settings.
Youth consistently report family conflict as the primary reason for their homelessness. Sources of conflict include a youth's relationship with a stepparent, sexual activity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, school problems, and alcohol and drug abuse. Many report parental drug or alcohol abuse, neglect, or physical or sexual abuse as their reason for leaving home. A family background of poverty, however, does not in itself seem to be a determining factor. Homeless youth, especially those living in shelters, appear to come from less impoverished backgrounds than homeless adults.
Homeless youth have difficulty meeting their basic needs for food, healthcare, and a safe place to sleep. They are at risk for physical or sexual assault. Getting an education and job skills is problematic. They are also likely to have experienced a variety of other problems, such as school and learning difficulties, emotional and mental problems, interaction with the criminal justice system, and high rates of sexually transmitted diseases. One local study reviewed by Robertson and Toro found that 6 percent of street kids attending one medical clinic tested HIV-positive. Other local studies reported that from 27 to 44 percent of homeless young women had been pregnant, while from 6 to 22 percent had given birth.
Robertson and Toro suggest comprehensive and tailored youth services to prevent homelessness and reduce the amount of harm that teens may encounter while homeless. Emergency and transitional services are needed, as well as vigorous attempts to reconcile younger teens and those experiencing their first episode of homelessness with their families.
Despite national funding and a vast network of local activity, "[H]omelessness remains one of America's most complicated and important social issues," says the Burt study. Estimating that 5 percent of youth ages 12 to 17 have experienced bouts of homelessness, Robertson and Toro call youth homelessness "disturbingly common."