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Street youth: Who are they? What can be done to help them?

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''He's in his 20s now and he's not making it,'' Mr. Murphy says.

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Of those who do make the decision to come off the streets, only about 20 percent canm go home, according to Mr. Murphy. For the rest, with the exception of a handful who could return home with some staff intervention or assistance, going home is not an option. The family has dispersed, the parents are not fit to care for the child, or else they refuse to take the child back. In these cases, a long-term alternative to street life must be worked out. The need for long-term assistance

While developing countries are struggling to meet the most basic needs of their vast numbers of street youth, the US has made significant headway in supplying its destitute children with short-term help in the form of food, shelter, clothing, health, and legal assistance. The great challenge now, many American symposium participants agreed, is to find permanent housing, jobs for older adolescents, and ways to provide educational and other opportunities for growth and development.

''While survival services are very important, unless we tie these services into a system of ongoing care we do those young people a great disservice,'' said Linda Rippond in her address to the symposium. She sees the need to develop more long-term residential options for these children, such as professional foster care in individual homes rather than in group institutions.

''The important thing is to let them know they have a future: that they will be here five years from now,'' she says. ''We also must remember the forces that impact these children in the street continue to exert a strong, seductive pull back to the street as they try to leave it.''

At Covenant House, these forces have prompted security measures to ensure safe sanctuary.

''Many girls who come to us have recently been beat up by boyfriends or are in fear of some man threatening them because they've left the street,'' explains Greg Loken, a Covenant House senior staff attorney who arranges legal protection if necessary.

Mr. Loken has also worked for increased federal legislation protecting the rights of children, but he believes governmental measures have limited effectiveness.

''International declarations of children's rights do not solve problems for kids,'' he says. ''What solves problems for children is the presence of people who care for them close by.'' What can be done

At the core of the homeless- and runaway-youth issue are the family conflicts that force children to flee.

Possible preventive steps explored at the symposium were aimed at helping parents in distress and strengthening family ties. Suggestions included expansion of social services already in place such as the Head Start program, easier access to day care, and increased family counseling and vocational training.

On a more fundamental level, participants agreed that positive change will ultimately come from a renewed commitment by both parents and communities to basic child-rearing values.

According to Mr. Loken, many American families today are isolated from an extended family network and from the community. ''People aren't staying in one place long enough to form relationships,'' he says, noting the high relocation statistics in recent years. Without caring people to turn to, ''small problems can grow steadily more intense.

''If parents felt the presence and support of other family members and from neighbors, they would feel less need to resort to physical violence and there would be easier detection of the problem,'' he continues. ''It's really going to take a change in the national will to care about each other and each other's children.''

The National Directory of Runaway Youth Programs lists and describes the 400 centers serving homeless young people nationwide. To obtain a copy send $9.95 to the National Youth Work Alliance, 1346 Connecticut Ave., Wash. D.C., 20036.m