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40 Years of Impact: The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act

Photo of William H. Bentley, Associate Commissioner of Family and Youth Services Bureau.By William H. Bentley, Associate Commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau

Forty years ago this year, Congress passed the landmark Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. Jim Pearce remembers the days before the Act, when young people who had run away or been found on the streets were routinely locked up—simply for not being where adults thought they should be.

Now CEO of CDS Family and Behavioral Health Services, the Gainesville, Florida, social services organization where he started working in 1970, Jim says young people sent to juvenile detention for running away came out involved in gangs or drugs or other crimes. They didn’t get the services they needed—things like stable housing, family and individual counseling, education and career training—and often spiraled into even greater trouble than before.

Keeping Young People out of ‘The System’

Then along came the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, part of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 and a broader movement to keep so-called status offenders out of the juvenile justice system. (Status offenses include running away and truancy and other actions that are considered crimes only because of a young person’s age.)

The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which is administered by ACF’s Family and Youth Services Bureau, authorized a system of emergency shelters for runaway and homeless youth. More important, it enabled organizations like Jim’s to “deal with young folks in a much more appropriate way,” he says, “to deal with them in a way that does not push them deeper in the system.”

Because of the Act, instead of jail time young people could get food, shelter and support from basic center programs funded by the Act. Instead of becoming further disconnected and risk falling victim to trafficking, youth were reunified with their families, whenever doing so was safe and appropriate, and reintegrated into their schools and society.

Expanding Services

Over the years, the services made possible by the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act have expanded.

Today, the Runaway and Homeless Youth Program includes transitional living programs that prepare unaccompanied youth—those who cannot return to their families because of abuse, conflic, or poverty—to live independently and contribute to society.

Community-based street outreach programs, also funded by the Act, locate youth who are living on the streets or in other unstable situations and are highly vulnerable to human trafficking. They connect them to basic needs—socks, sandwiches, shelter—and, eventually, not-so-basic needs like mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and education and job-training opportunities.

Runaway and homeless youth programs also provide preventive services, working with families and youth in crisis and helping them to mend conflicts and stay together. Keeping young people off the streets is critical to preventing sexual exploitation and trafficking. 

Over the decades, hundreds of thousands of young people and their families have gotten help from programs funded via the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. The programs have been good for kids and for their communities, Jim says.

“They become adults who give back, rather than a person in prison who requires services from the system,” he says.

Need Continues

We’ve made a lot of progress in four decades, but there is still an urgent need for runaway and homeless youth programs and the intensive array of services they provide. Here’s why:

  • Hundreds of thousands of young people experience homelessness each year. Most leave home because of family conflict, which in many cases could be prevented.
  • An estimated 20 to 40 percent are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender youth who have left home or been asked to leave because their families do not accept their sexual identity.
  • Youth who run away from home or foster care and youth who are homeless or living in unstable situations often fall prey to sexual exploiters and traffickers. Exploited young people, who have long been served by runaway and homeless youth programs, have intensive needs and face many obstacles on their road to recovery.
  • Runaway and homeless youth—and their families—who reach out for help may not find it. In many parts of the country, shelters and transitional living programs are filled to capacity, unable to take in all of the young people who need their services.

“We have good policy, we have good practice,” Jim says. “It all comes down to: Do we have enough resources to deal with all the families and youth that we would like to?”

Looking to the Future

Jim’s is a tough question. But I’m optimistic because the federal government is marshalling efforts around two strategic plans.

Opening Doors, the federal strategic plan to end homelessness, is well on its way to eradicating youth homelessness by 2020. And the Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking will, among other goals, expand victims’ access to services and improve outcomes, by promoting effective, culturally appropriate, trauma-informed services that improve the short- and long-term health, safety, and well-being outcomes of victims.

It’s appropriate that as the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act turns 40, FYSB and our federal partners are renewing our commitment to keep every young person safe. But of course, the true hard work happens, and will continue to happen, every day at community-based programs like Jim’s.

And the true heroes of the next 40 years—as of the last 40—will be our nation’s young people, every last one of whom has the potential to become that “adult who gives back.”

William H. Bentley is Associate Commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), where he oversees programs that work to prevent teen pregnancy, youth homelessness and family violence. Bentley has more than four decades’ experience advocating for youth and families and promoting volunteerism and public service.

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