The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported that in 2002, there were 1,682,900 homeless teenagers in the United States. These homeless and runaway youth face many dangers on the street, which put them at risk for disease, illness, and death.
The Experience of Homeless Teenagers
Homeless teenagers spend their days walking the streets looking for money and food. Not being of legal age to work means many teenagers turn to theft. Some find it easier to sell sex or drugs for shelter, food, and money. However, this puts them in danger of rape, physical abuse, and murder.
Homeless teenagers live in a constant state of alert. Some decide to join a gang thinking the members will protect them. However, gang activity is just as dangerous since many of them require new members to fight, commit murder, or steal for initiation and establish rank within the group.
Shelters are available in large cities; however, they fill up fast. A homeless teenager's bed of maybe a blanket usually ends up in a park, under a bridge, highway underpass or in the woods. The winter poses bigger problems especially in colder climates. Without adequate warm shelter, teens can become ill, suffer from hypothermia, or freeze to death.
Reasons for Teen Homelessness
The following are three reasons for teen homelessness:
- Problems in the home
- Parental economic difficulties
- Home instability
Problems in the Home
Many teenagers who are physically, emotionally, and/or sexually abused will runaway so they don't have to endure it any longer. Some teens run away because their parents are in a high conflict divorce. They may feel as if they are the reason why their parents cannot get along or they don't want to be around their parents fighting. Parents who have mental illness or are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol may be neglectful or tell their teenager to leave their home against his/her wishes. Some runaways who are from stable homes, no longer want to deal with their parent's authority and decide that they would be better off alone.
Parental Economic Difficulties
Parents, who are unemployed and lose their housing, may become homeless along with their children. However, because of the dangers of the street and shelter availability, many teens separate from their parents.
Children who have grown up in the system may find it discouraging when they must repeatedly move in and out of foster homes. As some of these children become teenagers, they become less flexible about their living situations and decide to run away.
Teen Consequences of Homelessness
When teenagers run away, many of them don't consider the consequences of living on the street.
- Drugs and alcohol abuse
- Criminal activity
- Legal issues
- Sexually Transmitted Diseases, AIDS, HIV
- Poor nutrition and health
- Post traumatic stress disorder
- Conduct disorder
- Lack of education
Warning Signs of a Teen Runaway
As a parent, you may not think your teenager is capable of running away. However, one out of seven teens will run away and many of them do it more than once. Therefore, it's important to look out for the following warning signs:
- Changes in personality
Adolescence is marked by many changes in personality, however, you want to pay particular attention to isolation from friends and family. Mood swings, irritability, or problems with anger management are also common signs that the teen is struggling with emotional issues.
- Problems in school
Look for any sudden changes in grades or attitude towards schoolwork. Hanging out with a different crowd at school or engaging in deviant behavior may make your teen feel as though living on the edge is exciting, so it's important to pay attention to these changes.
- Sleep or appetite changes
Changes in sleep or appetite can signify a health or mental health issue, which could influence an adolescent's actions and thought processes.
- Drug or alcohol use
Drugs and alcohol can alter your teenager's ability to make rational decisions. It's important to take action with drug and alcohol use as soon as possible before it begins to impact his/her actions.
Help for Teen Runaways
If you are a homeless teen runaway or just thinking about it, there is help out there for you. The National Runaway Switchboard is available 24 hours a day and is free. They are confidential, which means you don't have to worry about anyone finding out that you are reaching out for help. You can call them at 1-800-RUN-AWAY or send them an anonymous message. Running away will not solve your problems; it will only make things worse. Get help now!