How to Help? Reaching Out to Homeless and Runaway Youth

The 2001 article in The Prevention Researcher entitled “Helping Homeless Youth Help Themselves: Exploring the Role of Professionals,” examines the types of help that best promote a successful transition into adulthood for runaway and homeless youth.[1] Based on interviews with twelve former runaway and homeless children, now between the ages of 18 and 25, the article describes how these youth were able to alter their attitudes and behavior. The article furthermore offers advice for helping at-risk youth, based on their findings.

The young adults interviewed reported learning from their own mistakes and experiences more than from the accomplishments of others. All the former runaway and homeless youth, however, recognized help from others as a critical factor in being able to resolve problems and mature successfully. The interviewees identified four types of help as most important: being cared for, being held accountable, concrete assistance, and professional intervention.

Eleven interviewees discussed the benefits of the care they received from others.  Unconditional acceptance, nonjudgmental listening, and emotional support were all noted as helpful during their time as homeless youth. The youth said that people “being there” for them-without trying to solve all of their problems-was really beneficial. As one participant put it, “letting me make the tough decisions, but guiding me,” was helpful care.

A majority of interviewees also talked about the importance of being held accountable for their behavior by family and professional helpers. Being given boundaries, as well as being confronted when those boundaries were crossed, enabled the youth to better understand the consequences of their actions. While many of the young people admitted they resented the accountability at the time, they appreciated it in hindsight.

Necessary concrete assistance included providing groceries, a place to live, any needed medications, including those for mental illness, and money for school.

Seven of the study’s participants stated that professional intervention such as formal counseling and residential treatment had helped them to get their lives back on track. Teachers, counselors, and foster parents were cited as some of the people who went beyond their assigned role and reached out to the troubled youth. In interviews, former runaway and homeless youth said that the most helpful people were those who set boundaries and held them accountable for their actions while still acting in a caring manner. The people who were least helpful were those described as uncaring and uninvolved.

The study found two conditions to be essential for someone to successfully help youth in a homeless or runaway situation. First, the helper needs to be perceived as trustworthy. Efforts to help may be more successful if the helper keeps promises, honors confidentiality, and treats the youth with respect. Second, the youth has to be ready to accept the help. Many participants shared that they had to make their own mistakes before they recognized they needed help- some even had to hit rock bottom before they were receptive to the advice of others.

Below is a summary of the advice to people hoping to make a difference in the lives of homeless and runaway youth:

  • Keep your promises in order to build trust.
  • Create a safe space for the youth to open up to others.
  • Listen. Try to put yourself in their shoes and accept them as they are.
  • Develop a personal relationship with the youth rather than keeping them at a professional distance.
  • Forget the pity. Instead, give them boundaries and hold them accountable for their actions.

Finally, the article suggests that it is also helpful to focus on the young individual’s strengths. Rather than how he or she has failed, how is it that through these tough circumstances the youth has survived? Despite the frustration, the authors urge troubled youth to focus on the possibilities for learning in any situation-poor decisions and ineffective problem solving included. Even friends who are bad examples can be seen as opportunities to teach youth about the consequences of bad choices.

It is important to remember that it is never too late to reach out to runaway and homeless youth. Even friends and family members that are currently estranged may be positive supporters for a troubled adolescent in the future.

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

  1. Jarvis, S., Lindsey, E., Williams, N.: Helping Homeless Youth Help Themselves: Exploring the Roles of Professionals. The Prevention Researcher 2001; 8: 12-14.