The Total Child

National Runaway Prevention Month

(National Awareness) Permanent link

The following post is by Kayla Jackson, Project Director, AASA

November is National Runaway Prevention Month. Every year between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away. Young people runaway for many reasons: home is unsafe or unstable; they are asked to leave because of their sexual orientation; they are abandoned by their families or caregivers; they are involved with public systems (foster care, juvenile justice, and mental health); or have a history of residential instability and disconnection. (NN4Y, 

Runaway and homeless youth (RHY) fall through the holes of society’s safety net daily. They fall outside of many of the societal institutions that provide vital links to programs and services that can help them overcome homelessness and become productive members of society. One such institution is schools. Schools – administrators, teachers, counselors, social workers, nurses, and other building personnel – working in concert with community-based organizations that serve RHY can have a positive impact on the physical and academic well-being of young people. Schools can play a vital role in linking RHY with necessary programs and services.

Families with children are by most accounts among the fastest growing segments of the homeless population. More than 42% of those accessing emergency shelter are families, and, on average these families remain in emergency shelters for 70 days, longer than either single women or single men. The primary reason for family homelessness is the lack of affordable housing, though poverty, unemployment, low-paying jobs, family disputes, substance abuse, and other factors all play significant roles in family homelessness.

Findings from a three-year Head Start Demonstration Project reveal numerous challenges in serving homeless children and their families, including recruiting and enrolling homeless families; retaining homeless families and children in project services; involving homeless parents; and meeting the unique needs of homeless children and parents. Two subpopulations of children who face increased policy barriers to education are unaccompanied homeless youth and homeless preschoolers. Homeless youth are often prevented from enrolling in and attending school by curfew laws, liability concerns, and legal guardianship requirements. Homeless preschoolers also face difficulty accessing public preschool education. Less than 16% of eligible preschool aged homeless children are enrolled in preschool programs.

Not only are RHY at risk for poor academic outcomes, they are also at risk for poor health outcomes including the following: too early childbearing; improper care and treatment for pre-existing chronic conditions (e.g., asthma, allergies, diabetes); and mental health disorders that are exacerbated by living on the streets.

Homeless youth are a vulnerable population with high rates of sexual risk-taking behaviors, substance use, and mental health problems. Homeless youth are highly likely to experience early sexual debut, have multiple sex partners, engage in unprotected sexual intercourse, and use alcohol or other drugs prior to sex, resulting in a high-risk of acquiring HIV. Although there are no national data available on HIV among homeless youth, community studies have demonstrated a higher seroprevalence among homeless youth than among the general US youth population. Some homeless youth may be at additional risk because of a history of childhood sexual abuse and a lack of connectedness to trusted adults and family.

School administrators are focused on the bigger picture concerns of running a school or a district, but should note that student homelessness can show up as any of the following: student attendance at many different schools; increased absenteeism; poor performance on standardized tests; and/or behavioral concerns. The McKinney-Vento Act is federal legislation that is designed to address the problems that homeless children and youth face in enrolling, attending, and succeeding in school. Under McKinney-Vento SEAs must ensure that each homeless child or youth has equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as other children and youth. States and districts are required to review and undertake steps to revise laws, regulations, practices, or policies that may act as a barrier to the enrollment, attendance, or success in school of homeless children and youth. Additionally, every LEA must designate a local liaison for homeless children and youth.

To increase awareness of RHY issues, schools can participate in the annual National Runaway Prevention Month (NRPM). Sponsored by the National Runaway Switchboard, NRPM occurs every November to help increase awareness of the issues facing runaways as well as educate the public about solutions and the role they can play in preventing youth from running away. For more information, tools, and materials about NRPM, go to


 Jackson, Kayla 2011: Toolkit for Meeting the Educational Needs of Runaway and Homeless Youth. Washington: National Network for Youth.