Incidence and Prevalence of Homeless and Runaway Youth

Publication Date: May 9, 2003


Homeless, runaway, and throwaway youth (HRTY) constitute a high-risk population that urgently requires the attention of policy makers (Robertson, 1991; Russell, 1995; Solarz, 1988). Although little is known about this population, studies suggest that compared with their domiciled peers, HRTY are at significantly greater risk for medical problems and health-compromising behaviors that include HIV and other sexually transmitted and infectious diseases; substance abuse; psychotic behavior, depression, and suicide attempts; prostitution; and trauma (Russell, 1995; Greene, Ringwalt, Kelly, Iachan, & Cohen, 1995; Greenblatt & Robertson, 1993; Kipke et al., 1995; Robertson, 1989; Robertson et al., 1989; Rotheram-Borus et al., 1992; Sherman, 1992; Yates et al., 1988; Greene et al., 1999; Greene & Ringwalt, 1996). Furthermore, service providers report that the population appears to be increasing in size, with a trend toward clients who are more troubled and have multiple problems (Slesnick et al., 2000).

To plan programs and interventions for these young people, public health professionals and social workers need accurate information on the size and characteristics of the HRTY population. However, there is little empirical evidence about the prevalence or incidence of homelessness or of becoming a runaway or a throwaway, largely because of the challenges inherent in studying this population: contradictory definitions of what constitutes homeless, runaway, and throwaway experiences; an absence of standardized methodology for sampling HRTY; and an over-reliance on data from shelters and agencies. Such challenges likely lead to inaccurate conclusions about the size and characteristics of the population (Robertson, 1991; Russell, 1995; Greene et al., 1995; Robertson et al., 1989; Yates et al., 1988; Burt, 1992; Culhane et al., 1994; Ringwalt et al., 1998). Available estimates of the number of HRTY are highly problematic, and the actual numbers remain unknown. The number of the nation’s youth who run away from home, are forced to leave their home, or who experience homelessness in the course of a year may be well over one million (Ringwalt, Greene, Robertson, McPheeters, 1998; U.S. Department of Justice, 2002). Despite their large numbers, HRTY are an understudied and undercounted population. Carefully collected data on this population are rare and findings can be inconsistent, largely because sample sizes tend to be small. The result is an incomplete understanding of the characteristics, lifestyles, problems, and needs of homeless youth.

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