Street Kids Need Us Too: Special Characteristics of Homeless Youth

Article excerpt

Children and youth are inherently our most valuable resource. Their welfare, protection, development, and positive role in society are essential to the health of this nation. The family is the primary caregiver and is a child's source of love, respect, and guidance as well as good health, shelter, food, and education. For myriad reasons, some families are unable to satisfy these needs or may even create dangerous and life-threatening conditions for their children. Children who flee to the streets are often ones who are not going to "take it" any longer, whether "it" is sexual or physical abuse or severe psychological and emotional neglect and abuse (Able-Peterson and Bucy, 1994). "Street kids" are long-term runaway or homeless youth who have become adept at fending for themselves, often by illegal or dangerous activities. The problems faced by street kids are so severe that living on the streets is preferable to living at home.

Within public recreation services, homeless, unaccompanied youth living on the streets have historically been ignored. Yet, they have potential to be influenced positively through participation in meaningful recreation opportunities. This article will review the recent research on the special characteristics of homeless, unaccompanied youth and innovative recreation programs that currently, or in the future, can exist to serve them.

Who are "Street Kids?"

An estimation of the number of street kids in the United States is almost impossible to make with any certainty. All too often, youth who leave their families, foster homes, and group homes, go unreported. Goodman and Berecochea (1994) estimated conservatively that between one half to two million youth currently live on the streets in the United States. A United States Conference of Mayors study (1992) found the preponderance of street kids range in age from 14-17 years old. The same report stated that most street kids are African-American (52%) while 33% are Caucasian, 1 1% are Hispanic or Latino, 4% are Native American, and 1% are Asian; 9% of these youth have AIDS or are infected with HIV. Gay and lesbian youths seem to over-represent their peers in street youth populations (Kruks, 1991).

Street kids remain at the fringes of society and are casualties of larger social problems including substance abuse, poverty, physical and emotional neglect, and physical or sexual abuse. At the very time these youth are struggling to find identity and acceptance, they have to deal with being perceived as bad, sick, wrong, or evil. Typical personal and interpersonal factors that contribute to running away from home to live on the streets include school problems, mental health problems, attempted suicides, drug abuse/alcoholism, sexual and/or physical abuse by a parent, violence by other family members, a parent(s) who is a drug abuser/alcoholic, and the family has long-term economic problems (Bass, 1992). Abuse, neglect and parental substance abuse often result in low self-esteem that can quickly lead to runaway behavior and substance abuse, resulting in even lower self-esteem. Low self-esteem is the most serious problem of these youth and many feel they had no control over what happened to them in their lives while living at home (Luna, 1991).

The National Association of Social Workers reported that almost a quarter of runaway and homeless youth have mental health problems and 20% have attempted suicide (Bass, 1992). Street kids are likely to experience the results of poor nutrition, inadequate hygiene, respiratory diseases, drug and alcohol abuse, physical and sexual victimization, and unwanted pregnancies. Street kids are also at significant risk for HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases because of their high rates of injection drug use and unprotected sexual activity (Goodman & Berecochea, 1994). Much of the sexual activity is "survival sex" where the adolescent exchanges his or her body for food, shelter, money, or drugs. …