Homeless youth are generally defined as persons unaccompanied by an adult caregiver for extended periods of time and generally under the age of 21. This term encompasses a variety of unaccompanied youth such as runaways and throwaways. The term throwaway refers to youth who are put out on the street as a result of abuse, neglect, or victimization by parents or primary caregivers. Homeless youth can also include system youth (individuals under the age of 18 who are currently in the care or custody of state agencies). Not all homeless youth are actively living on the street. For example, unaccompanied youth may be considered homeless if they currently do not have a permanent residence but are temporarily living with friends, acquaintances, or relatives. Most homeless youth have a combination of these characteristics and routinely find themselves in transitional living situations. Whereas some youth are chronically homeless, many experience episodic homelessness, meaning that their periods of actual homelessness consist of small durations of time spent on the street augmented by semipermanent living situations with family or friends or under the supervision of social service or state agencies.
The varied categories and classifications of homeless youth and the episodic and transient nature of this population make it difficult for researchers to estimate their actual numbers. Also, many homeless youth simply may not want to be found and avoid social service agencies for fear of being placed either back in the situation from which they have run away or in a similar or worse situation. As a result of these factors, estimates of the number of homeless youth vary. Estimates can also be influenced by the counting method. As a result, counts of homeless youth in the United States range from the hundreds of thousands to millions.
When comparing homeless youth with homeless adults, homeless youth tend to cite different reasons for leaving home, such as family problems, abuse, and victimization. Homeless youth populations also experience more instances of sexual and physical victimization and abuse while living on the street. This increased vulnerability on the street may be related to their relative inability to navigate life on the street. As a result, homeless youth construct and utilize informal social networks of peers for two reasons. First, peer group and network ties provide homeless youth with a sense of safety and security. Second, social networks help homeless youth minimize the stigma associated with their marginalized position. Newly homeless youth lack the experience of living on their own and lack knowledge of where to go and what to do while on the street. Many have had real or perceived negative experiences with primary caregivers and social service agencies and so choose to avoid social services. Their choice to form strong bonds with fellow homeless youth is a logical one. Such ties not only enable young homeless individuals to identify with one another but also minimize the impact of negative consequences associated with life on the street.
- Moore, Jan. Unaccompanied and Homeless Youth: Review of Literature (1995-2005). Greensboro, NC: National Center for Homeless Education. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://nche.ed.gov/downloads/uy_lit_review.pdf).
- Whitbeck, Les B. and Dan R. Hoyt. 1999. Nowhere to Grow: Homeless and Runaway Adolescents and Their Families. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
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