National Runaway Prevention Month 2015: Preventing and Responding to Youth Homelessness

A thoughtful young person.

It's National Runaway Prevention Month! In the spirit of raising awareness of runaway and homeless youth this November, we're re-posting several articles that highlight this group's unique needs and experiences. In this article first published in 2009, we highlight four family-based interventions that prevent youth homelessness by strengthening family relationships and supporting youth in developing healthier behaviors.

Youth homelessness is strongly associated with living in poverty, not finishing school, not having a job, being in foster care or the juvenile justice system, getting pregnant or having a child, drinking and using drugs, and having poor mental and physical health. All of those factors are important for youth workers to recognize and address, as the authors of Covenant House Institute’s "National Youth Status Report," released in April 2009, have pointed out.

Those who work with runaway and homeless youth also know that many youth who end up on the streets get there because of friction at home. In fact, callers to the National Runaway Safeline, the national hotline for runaway and homeless youth, cite “family dynamics” more often than any other reason for running away.

In response, researchers have recognized that strengthening families is a key to keeping youth from running away or becoming homeless. In "Ending Youth Homelessness Before It Begins: Prevention and Early Intervention Services for Older Adolescents" (National Alliance to End Homelessness, August 2009), the authors identify four approaches that may help community planners and youth advocates quickly intervene to heal families before they self-destruct—and before youth run away or have to be placed in foster care. 

  • Multisystemic therapy addresses multiple aspects of serious antisocial behavior in adolescents and builds on a young person’s strengths.
  • The intensive family preservation services approach is a short‐term, intensive intervention that reunites families when a youth is in danger of being placed outside the home or running away.
  • Family functional therapy aims to help youth stop antisocial or unhealthy behaviors and to motivate other members of the family toward change.
  • Family group conferencing, or family group decision-making, enables  immediate family, extended family and other important people in a youth’s life to come together to develop and implement a plan to keep the young person.

Though family-based interventions can improve a young person’s likelihood of being reunited with their families, sometimes going home isn’t an option. Runaway and homeless youth who cannot return to their families often are not yet ready to face the adult world of paying rent and holding down a job. They need not only stable housing but also services, such as life-skill training, education, and financial and emotional support, to prepare them for independent living.

The authors of "Housing for Homeless Youth" (National Alliance to End Homelessness, March 2009) outline how services that teach self-sufficiency and Positive Youth Development, or PYD, which involves youth in decision-making, are integrated into four youth-housing models:

  • Community-based group homes, which offer family-style living in a homelike atmosphere with a structured daily schedule.
  • Shared houses, where young people share a home with a live-in staff member, cook their own meals and determine their schedules.
  • Supervised apartments (or “cluster apartments”), which are usually rented or owned by an agency. A supervisor who lives on-site provides guidance and immediate assistance if necessary.
  • Scattered-site apartments, which are rented by an agency or by youth. Youth live independently or with roommates, and the agency provides financial support, training and some monitoring.

In programs that provide housing to homeless youth, the authors say, the strengths-based PYD approach gives youth vital tools not only to survive the pressures of taking on adult responsibilities but also to thrive in the midst of those pressures.

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