Celebrating 40 Years of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act

The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act: 40 Years of Progress.

In 1974, Congress passed what would become known as the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, awarding the first federal dollars to programs that help young people stay off the street. It was a landmark bill that changed the youth-service field and helped innumerable young people stay safe.

In this issue of NCFY Reports, we take a look at the past, present and future of the federal effort to end youth homelessness: A new timeline reveals the many legislative and academic advancements in the field since the Act’s passage. A veteran nonprofit worker recalls his testimony before Congress in 1973, which led in part to the passage of the Act. And finally, a handful of youth workers from around the country share their vision for ending youth homelessness moving forward. It’s a fitting reminder of all that’s been done, and all that’s still being done, to help those young people who need it most.

40 Years of Serving Runaway and Homeless Youth: A Timeline

The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act may have changed the national approach to helping at-risk young people, but the field has been evolving for forty years, encompassing a greater number of services, treatment techniques, and measurements. Here are some of the biggest legislative and research advancements along the way:


The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 created the first coordinated strategy for the care and treatment of youth in the U.S. justice system. Title III, the Runaway Youth Act, said that runaways, truants or curfew violators could not be put in juvenile detention facilities or adult jails. States that complied received funding from the Family and Youth Services Bureau for emergency youth shelters called Basic Centers.

Chicago-based youth crisis hotline Metro Help received an 8-month demonstration grant from FYSB to determine whether there was a need for a national runaway hotline. During that time, Metro Help received 11,000 calls. The FYSB-funded National Runaway Safeline currently receives more than 100,000 calls a year.


Congress expanded the eligibility of Basic Center services from runaways to young people who were also “otherwise homeless.” In the last ten years, more than 440,000 young people under 18 experiencing homelessness have stayed in Basic Centers.


Congress established the Transitional Living Program for Older Homeless Youth in response to the fact that family reunification was not always a safe or viable option for homeless young people. More than 35,000 young people have been served by TLP in the last decade.


Youth development researcher Karen Pittman coined the phrase “problem-free isn’t fully prepared,” a mantra that helped shift the national focus of youth work from preventing individual problems to promoting a young person’s overall strengths and resilience.  FYSB’s Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs were built on a Positive Youth Development framework.


Congress established the Street Outreach Program to prevent young people on the street from falling victim to trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation. Street outreach programs made contact with street youth an average of 773,000 times each year over the past decade in an effort to connect them to shelter and services.


The University of North Carolina’s Carolina Population Center initiated the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, or AddHealth, following adolescents in grades 7-12 in the 1994-1995 school year through 2008. As the one of the only nationally representative study of adolescent health, this study has been a model for many research publications that track risk factors for running away and homelessness, the most prevalent being family instabilityprevious attempts to run away, and a history of victimization. It also revealed that girls, older youth, and youth in urban areas are more likely than younger youth, boys, and youth in rural or suburban areas to run away.

In addition, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, initiated the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, or ACES, one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being. Data from this study show that youth who move around a lot are at greater risk for substance abuse and teen pregnancy, as they try to cope with new environments and other traumatic experiences likely to be related to their residential mobility.


The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children, or NISMART, reported that an estimated 1,682,900 youth had a runaway/thrownaway episode in 1999. The report found that 71 percent may be endangered because they are extremely young (13 or younger), they are in places where criminal activity is occurring, they abuse substances, or they have suffered sexual or physical abuse.


Recognizing that pregnant and parenting teens were disproportionately represented among the populations of homeless youth, Congress amended the RHYA to fund Maternity Group Homes using TLP funds. In FY13, 27 percent of young people in TLP programs were pregnant or parenting, and in the last decade, over 11,000 pregnant or parenting youth have stayed in TLP programs.


Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago published the first installment of the seven-year Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, which tracks the overlap between the foster-care and runaway and homeless youth populations, among other outcomes. The study found that 1 in 3 youth that exited the foster care system was homeless for at least one night.


FYSB and the Children’s Bureau collaborated on the Support Systems for Rural Homeless Youth Demonstration Project to offer employment and housing services, youth engagement initiatives, and other programs tailored to homeless and foster youth in rural areas. That project ends in 2014.


FYSB and other federal agencies serving on the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness made a commitment to end youth homelessness by 2020.


In order to have a better picture of youth homelessness in the United States, FYSB and the Department of Housing and Urban Development began work to merge the two federal systems that collect statistics on homelessness. A new, integrated system will be launched in 2015.


For the first time, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s point-in-time count of homelessness in America includes unaccompanied homeless youth up to 24 years-old. More than 46,000 young people were counted.


FYSB and its partners celebrate 40 years of efforts to promote safety, self- sufficiency, wellbeing and permanent connections for homeless youth. 

Witness to History: Brian Slattery Remembers Testifying Before Congress

The drafting and passage of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act followed a full day of congressional testimony by nearly a dozen youth workers and formerly homeless young people in 1973. Brian Slattery was one of those youth workers. Now the executive director of the Marin Treatment Center in San Rafael, CA, Slattery spoke with NCFY about his day on Capitol Hill and the experience of watching congress take action for the at-risk youth that he cared so deeply about.

NCFY: How did you end up testifying on the Hill in the first place?

Slattery: I was one of the managers at Huckleberry House at the time, and was contacted by Mathea Falco, the chief of staff for the Criminal Justice Committee on Juvenile Justice. That committee was chaired by [eventual RHYA author and sponsor] Birch Bayh.

She’d been told that Huckleberry House was the model for a few other centers around the country. We were founded in Haight-Ashbury in 1967 as an alternative to incarcerating runaway kids. A real struggle in San Francisco was that cops would just incarcerate them alongside kids that were accused of serious crimes. Or they’d ship them home, whether or not that was safe.

These kids were coming to Haight because it’d been portrayed by Time and Life [magazines] as a place where the streets were paved with gold, no one had to work, free love, all that. In response, we started offering family counseling, legal services, foster services.

NCFY: What was your role in the hearings?

Slattery: I was supposed to be an intelligent adult talking to senators in a language they could understand. I made the case that this wouldn’t be a threat to the juvenile justice system, it would actually allow them to focus on the kids who belonged in that system. Ten to 12 people testified, about half of which were youth. The kids who testified had all been seriously abused in their family homes. They told emotional stories, and clearly weren’t a threat to anybody. They were asking for help, and they told the senators that this kind of place helped them get away from an abusive family.

Senator Birch Bayh visited our program. He wanted to have sandwiches with the kids for lunch. He sat and listened to a bunch of kids who just happened to be in the shelter at the time. They were very impressed with him.

NCFY: When the Act finally passed, what effect did that have on your work?

Slattery: The RHYA was our first stable funding. Before, [our budget] was a shoestring and a prayer. Our other grants all had very limited scopes and times. A local council of churches donated clothing, places to stay, and volunteers. The legitimacy of the Act also made other more conservative agencies at the state and local level come up with funding.

NCFY: What do you consider to be the ultimate legacy of the Act and your role in its passage?

Slattery: The act really supported what came to be the decriminalization of runaway and homeless youth. A lot of people had a hard time appreciating was that [programs like Huckleberry House] did family counseling. Not every family was abusive. Many kids just needed more space, and better communication. We did a lot of family reunification. [The Act] allowed these kids to return home, finish school, and be successful. It helped kids normalize who were in crisis. It got kids out of the juvenile justice system who were not criminals. 

The Battle Continues: Where Do We Go From Here?

Despite many achievements over the last 40 years in developing effective services for homeless youth, there are still many young people who need daily help and shelter. We asked five youth and family workers from around the country, “What is the next step in the battle to keep young people off the street?”

These interviews were conducted at the 2014 National Pathways to Adulthood Conference, attendees of which work with homeless as well as foster youth who are transitioning to independence. Many of their comments reflect the need for continued collaboration between the child welfare and runaway and homeless youth fields, and offer a composite picture of the field moving forward.

Meredith Hicks, Lighthouse Youth Services, Cincinnati, OH

Lauren Grimes, Transition-Age Outreach, On Our Own of Maryland, Baltimore, MD

Ross Powell, Recruitment and Intake Specialist, Achieving Independence Center, Philadelphia, PA

Jerriee Michalicka, Transitional Living Program Coordinator, Youth and Family Services, El Reno, OK

Brian Brant, Coordinator, Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, Colorado