By Debbie A. Powell, Acting Associate Commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau
They call from park benches and empty warehouses. They live-chat in libraries, their bedrooms, their school computer labs. They email from anywhere they can get a cell phone signal or an Internet connection.
Every year, thousands of young people--and adults who care about them--contact 1-800-RUNAWAY, the federally designated national hotline for runaway and homeless youth. Some of these teens are on the streets. Others are still at home, have had a fight with a parent, and don’t know what to do. Many know someone—an aunt or uncle, a sister or brother, a grandparent—they want to reunite with, but they don’t have the money to get to them.
A Hotline Is Born
Forty years ago, these young people would have had nowhere to turn. Then in 1974, as part of the landmark Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which established the nation’s system of youth shelters and services, the federal government established a national communication system for runaway and homeless young people.
That same year we gave a grant to a little crisis hotline in Chicago called Metro-Help. We asked them to help us determine if there was a need for a national 24-hour hotline that would connect runaway and homeless youth to services and support. During its 8-month trial period, the hotline received 11,000 calls.
Metro-Help became the National Runaway Switchboard and has remained the federally designated national communication system, funded by the Family and Youth Services Bureau, for nearly four decades.
On January 15, the National Runaway Switchboard became the National Runaway Safeline.
Fighting Youth Homelessness in the Digital Age: A ‘Safeline’ for Youth in Crisis
Over the last 40 years, some things have unfortunately stayed the same. We are still fighting youth homelessness, still looking for better ways to support youth and families. We know there’s a lot more that can be done to help families avert crises that cause young people to run away.
Other things have changed for the better since 1974. To reflect the many ways we can now communicate and help each other in the digital age, the “Switchboard” changed to “Safeline.” In the meantime, the organization’s services remain the same: The crisis hotline is available 24-hours a day throughout the United States and its territories. Those seeking help receive immediate intervention and are put in touch with local social service providers. Safeline staff can also help youth and parents speak to each other by conference call. The Safeline’s Home Free program, supported by Greyhound Lines, offers youth free bus rides home.
The Safeline has an important role to play in the federal government’s ongoing efforts to end youth homelessness by 2020. We can’t achieve that goal without preventing youth from running away in the first place, and getting them off the streets quickly when they do.
Here at FYSB, we are proud to have worked with the Safeline for nearly four decades. We’re glad that when a young person types “Should I run away” into Google, he or she will find somewhere to turn.