Causes of running away and homelessness among young people are many and varied, as are potential consequences. Several factors make it difficult to determine the scope of the issue of youth homelessness, including the number of homeless youth and young adults in the United States. In addition to there being no consistent methodology for conducting a youth count and no consistent definition of homeless youth across federal agencies, homeless young people may not be connected to formal support services such as child welfare, juvenile justice, and mental health systems; the education system; or youth shelters and drop-in centers. They may not wish to be found or may have a network of friends or relatives who let them couch surf temporarily.
A strong foundation of data and statistics is necessary to inform developing and implementing effective federal, state, and local policies and strategies to reduce the number of young people lacking safe and stable housing. Attempts to capture this population include the Point in Time (PIT) Count, a project of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Youth Count! Initiative, a joint venture of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, HUD, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education. Research projects such as Chapin Hall’s Voices of Youth Count are developing and testing new methods for achieving more accurate estimates and sharing this information with the field. Here are some of the facts and figures related to runaway and homeless youth in the U.S.
It's Challenging to Quantify the Number of Young People Without Safe and Stable Housing
Definitions of homelessness, including youth homelessness, vary from agency to agency. These definitions are generally based on laws or regulations. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act provides the definition used by the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) and is the authorizing legislation for FYSB’s RHY programs. It defines youth homelessness as young people who cannot live in a safe environment with a relative and who have no other safe living arrangement. The McKinney-Vento Act Homeless Assistance Act established the definition used by the Department of Education in determining eligibility for McKinney-Vento rights and services, while HUD’s definition establishes four categories of homelessness:
- Individuals and families who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence
- Individuals and families who will imminently lose their primary nighttime residence
- Unaccompanied youth and families with children and youth who are defined as homeless under other federal statutes
- Individuals and families who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence
Youth Homelessness in the U.S. Is More Common Than You Might Think
Homelessness among youth doesn’t always mean young people living on the streets or in shelters. Indeed, with the exception of FYSB-funded Basic Center Program shelters, many homeless shelters don’t accept unaccompanied minors. Homelessness also includes couch surfing with friends or relatives, a temporary answer to what may be a long-term issue. The Voices of Youth Count reveals “a scenario of American youth homelessness in which a shifting population of young people uses temporary situations to get by when they cannot stay in a home of their own.”
- According to Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America, around one in 10 young adults ages 18 to 25 and at least one in 30 youth ages 13 to 17 experienced unaccompanied homelessness within a 12-month period. This equates to an estimated 4.2 million youth and young adults in the U.S., about the same as the population of Los Angeles or the combined populations of Houston, TX, Seattle, WA, Washington, DC, and Atlanta, GA.
- The same report also found that 72% of homeless youth who slept on the streets or in shelters also couch surfed. And more than 40% of surveyed youth experienced more than one episode of homelessness during the year, with 73% experiencing an episode longer than one month.
- The National Center for Homeless Education found that the number of unaccompanied homeless students increased by nearly 26% between the 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 school years.
- The National Runaway Safeline (NRS), the federally designated national runaway and homeless youth crisis hotline and online service, responded to 26,117 calls, 15,981 chats, 1,946 emails, and 3,209 web postings in 2021.
- It is estimated that 6 to 7% of youth run away from home each year – more than 1.5 million children and adolescents annually.1 NRS’ report, Why They Run, indicates that issues cited by youth as reasons for leaving home include family dynamics; physical, sexual, verbal, and other types of abuse; and economic issues at home. The study also found that almost half of the youth interviewed said they were forced out of their homes.
- Youth homelessness is almost as common in rural areas as urban areas. The Voices of Youth Count findings make it clear that homelessness among young people is not only an urban issue — 9.2% of youth in rural counties reported experiencing any homelessness; the prevalence for urban youth was 9.6%.
Some Young People Are at Higher Risk of Homelessness
Socioeconomic status, education level, gender and sexual identity, peer groups, family dynamics — all are examples of factors that may be related to youth running away or becoming homeless.
- Education level and household income are highly related to homelessness risk. For young people without a high school diploma or GED, the risk of homelessness was almost 3.5 times higher than their peers who completed high school. And youth from households with annual incomes under $24,000 had a 162% higher risk.
- Many homeless young people are pregnant or parenting and have their children with them. In fact, 44% of 18- to 25-year-old women surveyed as part of the Voices of Youth Count said they were pregnant or a parent and 18% of the young men said they were a parent or had a pregnant partner. Forty-three percent of young adult women and 29% of young adult men who had been homeless during the past year said they had at least one child. In contrast, 22% of young women and 14% of young men in the same age group who had not experienced homelessness within the past year reported having a child.
- Young people who identify as LGBTQ represent a high proportion of homeless youth and young adults. A survey of youth homeless services providers found the proportion to be as high as 40%.
- Young people experiencing homelessness are also more likely than their peers to be affected by substance use disorders and mental health issues. It is estimated that 48% or more of youth who are homeless meet the criteria for at least one mental health diagnosis such as depression, PTSD, ADHD, and anxiety disorders, and between 69% and 86% experience substance use disorders.2
- A recent study found that 79% of homeless youth reported experiencing multiple instances of childhood abuse.3
- Young people leaving the foster care system are also more likely than their peers to experience homelessness — research suggests that between 11% and 36% of youth who age out of foster care become homeless.4
Help Is Available for Runaway and Homeless Youth and Their Families
FYSB provides funding to several types of direct service providers through its Street Outreach Program, Basic Center Program, and Transitional Living Program/Maternity Group Home grants. Current grantees along with their contact information are listed by state on the FYSB website. FYSB funds the National Runaway Safeline, which offers a crisis hotline (1-800-RUNAWAY) and online services 24/7/365. NRS can help runaway and homeless young people in many different ways, such as finding shelter, social services, or legal services; serving as a go-between or setting up a conference call with parents; or providing a free bus ticket home with their Home Free program.
About RHYi Issue Briefs
Issue Briefs, developed by the National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families, provide information about runaway and homeless youth and the issues that affect them.
1 Chen, X., Thrane, L., & Adams, M. (2012). Precursors of running away during adolescence: Do peers matter? Journal of Research on Adolescence, 22, 487–497.
2 Brakenhoff, B. & Slesnick, N. Substance use & mental health interventions for youth who are homeless: The community reinforcement approach & motivational therapy. In Mental Health & Addiction Interventions for Youth Experiencing Homelessness: Practical Strategies for Front-Line Providers, edited by S. Kidd, N. Slesnick, T. Frederick, J. Karabanow, & S. Gaetz. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press, 2018.
3 Bender, K., Yang, J., Ferguson, K., & Thompson, S. (2015). Experiences and needs of homeless youth with a history of foster care. Children and Youth Services Review, 55, 222–231.
4 Dion, R. Housing for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care (In Focus Brief). Washington, DC: Mathematica Policy Research, 2015.