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Take A Closer Look At Youth Homelessness

Take A Closer Look At Youth Homelessness

Every day I talk with or meet a teen who is homeless and reaching out for help. They have sadness in their eyes and fear in their voices. They are the victims of homelessness – not criminals – and tend to carry many stressors.  No story is the same. One youth may have parents whose home was lost because of unemployment or illness, another may have a caregiver who struggles with addictions. These teens may feel sad, ashamed, and anxious about their family stress.

Youth homelessness is a more serious issue than most people know. Teens aged 12 to 17 are statistically more likely to become homeless than adults. Last year our homeless and missing youth program served 4,000 teens, families and community members through street outreach, respite care, a drop-in center, community outreach and education, and a 24-hour hotline.

This problem is not localized to the inner city. It’s likely that a teen in your neighborhood is living with a parent in a car, sleeping on couches at friends’ houses, or staying on the streets. Homeless youth look different than homeless adults and are virtually invisible to most people. They don’t look dirty – their clothes are not tattered and worn. You will see them in school, at the library, in coffee shops or other teen-friendly locations, or even in your own home.

Why does a teen become homeless? According to the National Runaway Safeline, more than 50 percent of homeless youth report that their parents told them to leave, or knew of their plans to leave and did nothing to stop them. Forty-six percent of homeless youth escaped a home where they suffered physical abuse and are afraid to go home. Many are rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation.

When a homeless teen tells me his or her personal story, I always hear tales of pain, shame, sadness, and stress. Many of the youth overcome barriers and obstacles and have a powerful ability to survive. Some of the most traumatized and abused youth share how they left their homes due to chronic homelessness and neglect by their parents or guardians.

Young people who leave home often find themselves scared, confused, lonely, hungry, and cash-strapped. They may have substance abuse and/or mental health issues. As a result, they easily fall victim to drug and alcohol abuse or dealing, physical and sexual abuse, violence, and/or suicide. Homeless teens often suffer from severe anxiety and depression, poor health and nutrition, and low self-esteem. Some teens will overcome this and use the experience to motivate themselves, and others will struggle for years.

Runaway and homeless youth are particularly at-risk for engaging in survival sex. One in three youth who have been gone from home for two weeks or longer are at serious risk of being trafficked for sex. As a parent, you should be aware of the early warning signs that your teen or his/her friend might be in the grooming phase of sexual trafficking:

  • New clothes from an unknown source or older boyfriend or woman
  • New cell phone
  • Changes in hair style change
  • The teen may seem anxious, depressed, or have a change in attitude
  • Physical signs such as tattoos, bruising, or other health issues
  • Drug addiction

How to keep your teen safer

One of the most important things you can do to protect your child is to create an environment in which he or she feels comfortable talking with you. Open communication is key.  Ask about friends and classmates. Know where they go when they leave the house. Show your teen’s friends that you are a trusted adult and can help if needed.

What to do if you know of or suspect that a teen is in trouble

In Cuyahoga County call the Homeless and Missing Youth 24/7 Hotline at 216-570-8010. On-call emergency staff will respond either by phone or in person to a youth’s need for crisis intervention due to homelessness, the threat of taking off, or runaway behaviors. First Call for Help 211 helps find shelter and community resources throughout the state.


Article written by Karen McHenry, Homeless and Missing Youth Program Manager at Bellefaire JCB, a national Safe Place partner. She is a certified Chemical Dependency Counselor with clinical endorsement, a Licensed Independent Social Worker, and a fire safety educator. She is the recipient of the Childcare Worker of the Year Award, and the National Direct Service Worker Merit Award from Child Welfare League of America. 

As seen in the March/April Issue of Your Teen Magazine