Here at Alternatives For Girls, we believe all young people deserve a safe and empowering environment, which is why we acknowledge November as National Runaway Prevention Month and National Youth Homelessness Month. The pandemic has exacerbated this growing crisis of houseless adolescents. On a single night in 2020, 34,210 adolescents were counted as houseless, 90 percent of whom were between the ages of 18 and 24. Many of them have run away from home, a number estimated to be between 1.6 million and 2.8 million each year according to the National Runaway Safeline. This means that millions of children and young adults are vulnerable to the physical, mental and emotional harm that comes with housing insecurity. They are more likely to engage in dangerous behaviors necessary for their survival, more likely to be exploited for sex and drug trafficking, and less likely to receive basic necessities, such as medical treatment for mental and physical illnesses.
Despite the dangers houseless children face, they can be harshly stigmatized. They are often blamed for their decision to run away, labeled as “bad” kids that need punishment and discipline. But the overwhelming majority of children and adolescents on the street are not there by choice. They are forced there by a complex system of violence and oppression that impacts their lives on an interpersonal and institutional scale. This National Runaway Prevention Month, we must challenge and change the systemic issues that contribute to the growing crisis.
- Abuse & Exploitation: For victims of child abuse and exploitation, the street often looks safer than home. Many runaway and houseless youth are escaping domestic violence in their former households. Children are far more likely to experience abuse from family, and the violence can become so severe that running away from home feels like the only option. Additionally, children are far more likely to be exploited by people they know. According to Polaris, exploitation from a family member is the second highest recruitment tactic in sex trafficking.
- Gender & Sexuality: Even though only 7 percent of young Americans identify as LGBTQIA+, out of the 1.6 million youth experiencing houselessness, 40 percent were LGBTQIA+, according to a 2012 study conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law. Nearly half of them were either forced out by their family or ran away from home due to their gender or sexual identity. One-third of them ran away because of the physical, emotional, or sexual abuse they faced in their household due to their identity.
- Race & Ethnicity: Latinx youth are 33 percent at higher risk of houselessness than their white peers—a number that rises to 83 percent for Black youth, who are the most overrepresented group among all young people experiencing houselessness. But Black adults are also disproportionately impacted by houselessness overall. The combination of institutional racism and structural poverty excludes historically oppressed people from equal housing, economic opportunities, and community support, especially young children.
- System-Involved: Foster care is often the only option for children in unstable households, but the system is not without its faults. Sometimes, they are placed in unsafe and unstable homes that lead to homelessness. Also, according to a study conducted by National Runaway Safeline, 30 percent of respondents who had been in foster care ran away from home, compared to only 8.1 percent that were not.