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November is National Runaway Prevention Month

November is National Runaway Prevention Month, which is a good time to address some misconceptions about runaway and homeless youth.

Our prevailing idea of what homelessness looks like is skewed in many ways by portrayals in the media and stereotypes that need to be broken down. In particular, there is an issue with recognizing what constitutes homelessness for youth.

Imagine you run a youth group at your local community center. One of the youths who previously attended your meetings regularly is now only coming occasionally. When you ask what has changed, they say they no longer have access to the car they were using for transportation, because their mom kicked them out and they are sleeping on a friend’s couch. They tell you it happens all the time, and their mom will let them come back home once she ‘calms down.’

Question time: Is this homelessness?

The answer is yes. Despite the youth having a couch to sleep on, they cannot be said to have safe and stable housing, which is the key when it comes to determining housing. In this situation, not only could the youth’s friend suddenly tell them they have to leave, the youth also seems to go through periods where their parent kicks them out. That means they also cannot rely on safe and stable housing from their family.

This is an unfortunately common situation for youth to find themselves in. In their 2017 National Estimates survey, the University of Chicago found that one in ten young adults aged 18-25 and one in thirty young adults aged 13-17 will experience homelessness in a given year. This research defines homelessness as “some form of homelessness unaccompanied by a parent or guardian over the course of a year.” This means these are not youth whose family units are experiencing homelessness, but rather homeless youth who have been separated from their parents.

What kind of situations does this include? Here are some common examples:

  • A child and their guardian(s) are homeless, the guardian(s) are able to stay at an adult homeless shelter, but are not able to find a youth shelter for their child to stay
  • A child’s guardian(s) uses being kicked out as a punishment for their child, an action which is classified as neglect under Michigan law for children under the age of 18
  • A youth runs away from home due to a problem at home, including but not limited to, experiencing abuse/neglect, witnessing domestic violence, or being rejected by their family for their LGBTQ identity

As a society, this is not usually how we view homelessness. But with youth, who’s needs are legally required to be met by their guardian(s), homelessness can look different than what we expect. Because of this, any professionals who work with youth should keep their mind open and pay attention to the different forms this problem can take.

When it comes to preventing the issue, there are a few things we can all do.

If we suspect a youth is being neglected or abused by their guardian, whether it’s their biological parent, an adoptive or foster parent, or another legal guardian, we should report our suspicions to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Service’s Child Protection Services.

We can also do our best to stay knowledgeable about the youth shelter services in our area, so that if we are working with an entire family experiencing homelessness, we can help connect the family’s children to shelters they can stay at. An example is Common Ground’s Sanctuary, which serves youth in Oakland and the surrounding counties. The Sanctuary can be reached at 248-547-2260.

In addition, we should have a good idea of local services in general, or an idea of who to contact in our area to find those resources. For example, in Oakland County you can call Common Ground’s Resource and Crisis Helpline at 1-800-231-1127. Knowing local resources means we can point the youth we work with and their families in the direction of support.

By paying attention to the different forms that homelessness takes among youth and the resources available in our community, we can help support the youth in our lives and prevent them from getting to the point of lacking safe and stable housing.




Morton, M.H., Dworsky, A., & Samuels, G.M. (2017). Missed opportunities: Youth homelessness in America. National estimates. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.


Author: May Freck, Youth Empowerment Coordinator at Common Ground