Sometimes we see them. We see them in hot pants and halters in New York City, tapping on automobile windows, asking drivers if they want a “date.” We see them in Los Angeles, waiting for a sexual rendezvous that will bring them 25 dollars or dinner and a place to sleep. Sometimes we don’t see them. We don’t see them being smuggled into friends’ basements. We don’t see them sleeping under a plastic tarp in the woods. And, we don't see them living as concubines in migrant labor camps. And, sometimes we see them, but we don’t recognize them. We don’t recognize them because they look like the other teenagers talking to their friends in malls and on street corners. But unlike other teenagers, they cannot go home to a meal and a bed. They are runaway and homeless youth. They are among the poorest of America’s poor. They lack not only money and homes, but positive peer relationships, families, and the other social supports that most Americans can take for granted.
The cultural changes of the 1960s brought with them a transformation of the stereotype of the runaway youth. Norman Rockwell’s young boy with his belongings tied in a handkerchief on the end of a stick became the rebellious, overprivileged middle-class teenager who left home, with its restraints and responsibilities, for the freedom and adventure of urban youth ghettos and rural communes. While there may be a germ of truth in this stereotype, the limited research indicates that many of the runaways of the 1960s were fleeing family conflict and abusive homes. And, like the runaways of today, many of them became victims of violence, sexual exploitation, and the abuse of alcohol and other drugs (Deisher et al. 1969).
The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (originally authorized as part of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act of 1974) defines a runaway youth as “a person under 18 years of age who absents himself from home or place of legal residence without the permission of parents or legal guardians” and a homeless youth as “an individual who is not less than 16 years of age and not more than 21 years of age; for whom it is not possible to live in a safe environment with a relative; and who has no other safe alternative living arrangement.”
According to the federal definition, runaways include teens who, after an argument with their parents, storm out of the house to spend the night with their grandparents and adolescents who sneak out to spend a night with their friends swimming in the pool of a vacationing neighbor. Such episodes do not reflect the family conflict, alienation, and risk