Are these scenarios familiar?
Scenario 1: There has been no real communication in the house, only bickering, scolding, blaming, sarcasm, hostility and anger. Father is alcoholic, mother feels she was cheated out of a much better future.
Scenario 2: Both parents are successful professionals, too busy to spend a few hours with the children even during week-ends. Teen is well-provided with all material and financial needs. Friends fill the emotional gap so and s/he needs to sustain their acceptance and approval
Scenario 3: Teen is in deep trouble: a) She is two months pregnant/His girlfriend is two months pregnant. S/He dreads the parents’ reactions. b) Teen has been skipping classes and neglecting class requirements. The teacher told her/him that s/he would not graduate by the end of the school year; c) Teen sold her/his parents’ antique china jar to pay gambling debts/buy drugs.
These are but a few of the reasons why teens run away from home. The common pressing factors are: the feeling of being neglected, of failing to meet behavior standards of exacting parents, and the need for peer approval, hence, peer pressure.
The duration of being away from home varies, depending on what the parents will do. If the parental response to the situation is positive and constructive, the teenage child could be safely back home in a matter of days or weeks at most. If not, the runaway kid could become an added statistic to the millions of homeless teenagers on the streets.
Teen Homelessness and Its Risks
What is homelessness? A regular and fixed place to sleep that adequately provides for one’s needs is the prevailing criterion of having a home. Hence, a shelter and a welfare hotel do not qualify for a home, much less, temporary and makeshift structures in public places. While the criterion is limited to the physical structure that protects one from the elements of the night on a regular basis, the use of the word “home” connotes much more. Homeless teens do not have the constancy of a warm bed, regular hot meals, a cleansing bathroom, the sense of safety and most of all, the access to the love, guidance and protection of their parents.
Homeless teens drop out of school, go hungry, sleep much less if at all, get exposed to the elements, become highly susceptible to sickness, do not have reliable persons to run to when they need help, get exposed and become susceptible to violence, alcohol, drugs, theft, prostitution, rape, arrests, and all sorts of dangers on the streets.
Drug Problem: A Consequence of Homelessness among the Youth
Drug use and abuse are almost unavoidable for teens who have been homeless for months. The question of whether homelessness precedes drug abuse or the other way around would seem less of an issue as far as teenage runaways are concerned. One can logically surmise that drug problem would be more of a consequence than a cause of homelessness among teens except for special cases. Teens cannot have easy access to illegal drugs due to parental control and to limited finances. Only after they free themselves of such control and are free to make their own devices to access money could they indulge in drug use and abuse. So they run away from home.
Studies Conducted on Homelessness and Drug Abuse among the Youth
The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that 38% of homeless people (mostly older groups) were dependent on alcohol, while 26% (mostly the youth and young adults) abused other substances. Studies conducted with National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) funding presented a picture of homeless teens in the U.S. Among 432 homeless teens in Los Angeles, 71% were into alcohol or drug abuse. A nationwide survey among 600 homeless youths revealed that 50% of those who tried to commit suicide were under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. At the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina, researchers found that homeless youths had significantly higher rates of drug abuse and more serious drug use compared to those in shelters and those living at home. It was also found that 75% of the homeless teens were using marijuana, 33% were into stimulants, analgesic and hallucinogens and stimulants, while 25% were using forms of cocaine, sedatives and inhalants.
The Teenage Push from Home
Ages 12 to 17 years are vulnerable periods in a youngster’s life. In transit from being a child to turning adult, teens are experiencing changes in all aspects of their being: physical, emotional, psychological, social and mental. These are years of feeling misunderstood, of uncertainty and insecurity, of trial and error and of instability of self-concept. They want to be left alone yet they want attention and acceptance. They want freedom from parental control, yet they sorely need guidance and support. In this state or personal inner turmoil, a teenage child might decide to bolt away from home, completely unprepared for the realities of homelessness and street life. How to cope? There is just too much too soon. In order to adapt, the young runaway has to learn the ways of his new world and of his newfound friends. Alcohol and drug abuse is almost inevitable. Drugs become a habit, a reliable bolster. In addition, drugs could be the ticket for acceptance by the runaway teen’s new family of sorts. But once the teen gets hooked on drugs, it would be very difficult to get her/him off the habit, not while s/he remains on the street.
Any program of interventions aimed at helping homeless teens needs to involve the teen’s families since the predisposing problem that pushed the teen out of the house is often family-related. It will have to be a joint effort among relevant government agencies (like NIDA, the Social Welfare, the Police, etc) and the parents in whose care and home the child needs to return. The program should aim at taking the teen off the streets back to the security of the home and the protection of his/her parents and put him/her back to school. It has to be planned with full involvement of the teen and the parents. Supportive individual and family counseling has to be provided throughout the whole process.