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Q&A: Gary Harper on Positive Effects of the National Runaway Safeline’s Home Free Program

Greyhound bus, boarding.

You may have heard of the Home Free program run by the National Runaway Safeline, or NRS, to help runaway and homeless youth reunite with their families. But did you know that the program offers more than just a free Greyhound bus ticket to qualifying young people? Trained hotline volunteers also provide youth with trauma-sensitive, solutions-focused guidance before and after they return home. This may include working with participants to create personalized safety plans, for example, or helping them communicate with family members to resolve ongoing conflicts.

A team of researchers and NRS staff led by Gary Harper of the University of Michigan recently published an evaluation of Home Free based on data collected from parents and caregivers whose children used the program in 2011. We spoke to Harper, a long-time NRS volunteer who currently sits on the board of directors, to find out more about the evaluation’s findings and what he’d like other programs to take away from the research.

NCFY: Why did you write an article sharing the findings of the Home Free evaluation?

Harper: The primary purpose for conducting the evaluation was to better inform the program and to better address the needs of families. If there was no positive influence, we [at NRS] would need to recalibrate and think about how to change. [Additionally], we wanted to share what we are doing with other people in hopes that others could do similar types of interventions. It is also a good example of public-private collaborative models in the sense that we couldn’t afford to provide all those bus tickets. It’s a nice way for private companies to get involved. If people replicate the program, they could look at other potential public-private partnerships.

NCFY: What finding do you think is most important for programs serving runaway and homeless youth?

Harper: Communication is key to helping kids to be able to stay at home and have a healthy home environment. Oftentimes youth say their “parents don’t understand,” and parents say their “kids don’t get it.” But the [qualitative interviews] showed that the program had a strong and positive effect on family dynamics, or the ways parents and children interact, and really helped each side to understand each other’s perspectives. In the reuniting process, it helped both the child and family by setting expectations for how to return home, and it helped to open the lines of communication between both members.

Families don’t often have that ability or luxury to have a third party facilitating a conversation. [Given that support] people became more expressive, sharing their feelings more and experiencing less conflict within the family system.

NCFY: Was there anything that came out of the evaluation that surprised you? If so, what was it?

Harper: [Improvement in] family communication is something you’d expect, but it was really interesting to see that there were decreases in health risk behaviors such as alcohol and substance use, unprotected sex, fighting, and breaking the law. We might attribute that to youth being back in the home, communicating, and stabilizing. If youth are out on street, they are more likely to engage in risk behaviors like doing drugs, self-medicating, and using transactional sex for survival.

NCFY: What are the most important things for agencies to consider if they are looking to set up a similar program?

A lot of times people may not take the extra time to really dig deep to see what is the latest knowledge we have about issues of trauma, not only from a research perspective but also a practice perspective. This is why NRS is constantly evaluating its programs and workers. Also, it’s important to be solutions-focused and trauma-informed. [In developing this framework] we were really looking at what other people have done and what they see as the best approaches for doing this work. The extra time put into developing a really solid training program and making sure you have the staff in place to deliver ongoing trainings is really critical.

Read our recent summary of the Home Free evaluation.

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