Homeless Teenagers' Experiences and Risks

Jennifer L. Betts
Homeless teenagers

The Department of Justice estimated that there were 1.7 million 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 Teens

The experience of homelessness comes in several forms. You might find teens that are living on the street, living out of hotels, cars or abandoned homes/buildings or surfing friend's couches.

Living on the Street

Homeless teenagers spend their days walking the streets looking for money and food. 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.

Finding Homes in Cars, Hotels or Abandoned Buildings

Some homeless teens might have some type of roof over their head. They still need to find ways to make money for food. Not being of legal age to work means many teenagers turn to theft. Some find it easier to pan handle or sell sex and drugs for shelter, food and money. However, this puts them in danger of rape, physical abuse and murder. Additionally, most hotels are pay by week or day. Therefore, this shelter could be lost at any moment sending them back to the streets. Cars or abandoned buildings can be repossessed, meaning teens need to be alert at all times. They must have a plan for what to do if their temporary shelter is lost.

Couch Surfers

These are considered the hidden homeless teens. They don't have a permanent place, so they rely on friends, relatives, neighbors or strangers willing to lend them a couch to sleep on. While these teens might have heat or food, they don't have any sense of stability because they need to find a new place as soon as they overstay their welcome. These homeless teens constantly worry where they will sleep and might spend some nights living on the streets or even in cars when they can't find a place. Additionally, these kids might do odd jobs, chores or sexual favors for a place to sleep. With no place to stay permanently, everything they own typically fits within a backpack that they carry.

Reasons for Teen Homelessness

When you think of homeless teens, maybe you just picture those that have been thrown out by their parent or run away. But there are several reasons why a teen might be living in this situation.

Father and teen son arguing

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 a 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.

Home Instability

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.

Kicked Out

Homelessness doesn't have to be a long-term thing. Some teens have been kicked out of their homes on the short-term by their parents for various reasons. For example, a parent might kick a teen out after a fight or if they refuse to follow their rules. Teens might also be permanently kicked out for drug violations or criminal activity.

Mental Illness

Teens might choose to run away due to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, bipolar, ADHD, schizophrenia, etc. Having these disorders can make a teen unstable and harder to deal with. Parents might also choose to kick teens out due to unruly behavior that is caused by an undiagnosed mental health problem. Data from the Homelessness in Minnesota showed that 57 percent of the homeless reported having serious mental health issues (3).

Sexual Orientation

As many as 40% of homeless teens and youth are considered among the LGBT community. Either these teens might choose to run away from homes that aren't accepting of their sexual orientation or they might be kicked out by parents that can't accept their choice.

Drug Abuse

According to Healing Hands, many teens experiencing homelessness abuse alcohol or drugs. Drug abuse and alcoholism among teens can lead to homelessness when parents can no longer take the behaviors and kick the youth out. These teens may also leave on their own due to their addiction. There are an estimated 28-87 percent of homeless youth that use drugs and alcohol.

Aged Out of Foster Care

According to the National Foster Youth Institute, 20% of children that age out of foster care will become homeless on their 18th birthday. With more than 23,000 youths aging out of foster care, this is a huge number of former foster children with nowhere to go.

Consequences and Risks

When teenagers run away, many of them don't consider the consequences of living without a stable home. This lifestyle can lead to different risks.

Criminal Activity

Teens that live on the street are more likely to commit what are considered "survival acts," which in many cases means criminal activity. Not only will they steal, but they might also join a gang or sell drugs to survive. Most homeless teens are heavily 'at risk' for getting involved in crime, according to Homeless Hub.

Sexual Abuse and Prostitution

Teens without a stable home are at risk for different types of assault and abuse. According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center, between 21 to 42 percent of homeless teens experience sexual abuse. The NSVRC also reported that one in three teens will be lured into prostitution within two days, and 82 percent of homeless teens have traded sex for money and 48 percent for food or shelter. Homeless teens also experience different types of physical and emotional abuse. For instance, Covenant House listed 19 percent of kids reporting being beaten with an object.

Poor Nutrition and Health

Since homeless teens need to rely on fast foods and shelters for their meals, it was found that 50 percent of teens are obese, according to Meera S. Beharry, MD. Additionally, homeless can lead to malnutrition and medical problems from poor living conditions. These youths are more at risk from common illness like flu and pneumonia. Additionally, they are 20 times more likely to contract tuberculosis, stated Beharry. The unsafe health practices also lead to high rates of STDs and AIDs.

homeless teen boy

Mental Health Issues & Suicide

Homeless youth experience all types of mental health issues like depression, anxiety disorder, conduct disorder, PTSD and low self-esteem at elevated rates. According to the National Network for Youth, mental health issues are three times as high among homeless teens. These teens also have a higher rate of self-harming behaviors.

Drugs and Alcohol Abuse

Teens without a home are disproportionately affected by drugs and alcohol. They might either be using this as an escape, or it might have been what led to their homelessness. A study by the Journal on Addictions Nursing showed an estimated 69 percent of homeless teens fell under the category for substance abuse disorder.

Lack of Education

Many youths that are homeless will lack proper education. They either can't or don't choose to go to school. Some also can't sign up for classes because they don't have a home address. The NN4Y stated that only 57 percent of homeless youth were enrolled in school.

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.

Preventing Teen Runaways

In addition to recognizing the warning signs of a teen runaway, there are ways that parents or guardians can work to prevent their teens from feeling like running away is necessary. Explore ways to prevent common problems between parents and teens that might lead to homelessness.

Woman hugging teen girl

Keep Open Lines of Communication

Teens can be secretive by nature. Having an open line of communication can help teens to talk with you about what is bothering them before they runaway. Additionally, this can help a parent or guardian know if any type of abuse is happening in the household.

Explain Consequences for Actions

Teens might not always understand the consequences of their actions. For example, they might not realize how rough the real world can be, especially if you don't have a stable home. With statistics like two days to fall into prostitution, it is important that your teen understand the repercussions of running away.

Give Choices

Depending on the age of your teen, they could be on the cusp of adulthood. It's important to guide them in making the right choices rather than just issuing commands. Understand their point of view on why a rule is hard to follow. Parents and teens should work together to make rules and choices that are positive that both the child and parent feel are fair.

Provide Positive Feedback

Negative households can be hard for teens. Rather than focusing on negative behavior, it's imperative that parents and guardians focus on the behavior they want to see. For example, focus on the time your teen did come home before curfew rather than when they don't.

Help for Homeless Teens

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. Other homeless teen programs are available as well like:

  • Basic Center Program: This is a federal program that provides food and clothing for homeless youth. Get contact information for finding the program in your area.
  • John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program: This program offers assistance to current or former foster care children. Contact your local Department of Health and Human Services for more information.
  • Street Outreach Program: This program provides emergency services and education to youth living on the streets.
  • Safe Place Program: Designed to provide immediate shelter to homeless youth. Programs are available around the country.
  • HUD Programs: HUD offers several programs for homeless youth including ways to find agency programs and rehoming programs.

Finding Your Place

Homelessness is a national epidemic that affects teenagers all over the globe. Currently in America, there are more than a million teens without a stable home. Finding out the warning signs is important to helping to prevent teen homelessness.

Homeless Teenagers' Experiences and Risks