Numbers aren't hard and fast when calculating how many teens live on the streets. Statics available through the National Runaway Switchboard (NRS) state that the group answered 117,602 calls in 2009 with 55 percent of the callers having already left home.
Sadly those numbers don't mean much. Not all kids who run away contact any particular agency looking for help and because of that; no individual response group can quantify the problem.
The Nemour Foundation -- a charitable organization founded by the industrial magnate Alfred Dupont and focusing on the health and wellbeing of children -- approximates that between 1 and 3 million kids abandon or are abandoned by their living situation in any given year.
With numbers that large it's shortsighted to assume that the kids' choices -- or the circumstances that drove those choices -- are the reason these young people have no home. Running away and abandonment aren't the only reasons teens live on the streets, double up with friends, or tragically pursue dangerous lifestyles in order to survive.
And we know millions of teenaged kids aren't living in homeless shelters because if they were the numbers of homeless people in general would have balloon out by at least another million to account for these adolescents in some official way. For example, like just last week when the National Alliance to End Homelessness announced that the total number of homeless persons living in the U.S. was only a little over 600,000, it was obvious these young people weren't counted.
And when taking that glaringly small number into account with the data supplied by the Supplemental Document to the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness which was released this past June -- stating that 50 percent of all homeless kids are under the age of six -- there's no way these numbers add up. Taken together, these documents infer that according to official homeless statistics, relatively few -- if any -- homeless kids are teens.
But that isn't because teens aren't homeless, it's because for the most part, homeless shelters who supply the figures on homelessness, turn teens away.
Under current law, homeless shelters can deny access to teenaged members of families looking for shelter.
Here's what happens at most shelters across this country: when a family presents itself to a homeless shelter and a teenager is present, the shelter agrees to take the mom and younger kids if the teenaged children -- and any adult male members of the family -- leave them and go elsewhere. As the fed's strategic plan puts it, "Shelter policies regarding adolescent children can lead to family separation as older and adolescent males are frequently required to be housed in male, adult shelters."
But wait, this U.S. government assessment is still incomplete; it's not just the boys. A shelter in Carlisle, Pennsylvania -- to cite just one example -- does not allow adolescent girls either; and yet this strategic plan would indicate that the problem involves only adolescent males.
Of course if teenage boys (and girls) were allowed to live with their moms in family homeless shelters they would have figure into the Homeless Alliance figures as well as any long-term plans to end homelessness. Additionally these kids wouldn't be forced out of their families and into adult shelters or other desperate situations.
On the Southern (Dis)comfort leg of our EPIC Journey -- as Mary Parks, the technical guru labeled our trip through homeless communities around the U.S.' southeastern states -- we toured a shelter in Shelby, North Carolina that struggles to keep kids with their parents.
The shelter sits in close proximity to the single men's shelter in town and while they do try to house all adolescents with their mom, they require the dads stay in the men's shelter. Breaking up a family is never an ideal situation but is understandable in this case because the family shelter consists of two large communal rooms with bunk beds and cribs lining the walls.
Warehousing humans presents many challenges. And as one homeless woman explained, "Being homeless with kids means you never get much sleep because you have to protect your children 24 hours a day, sleeping or awake, who sleeps next to you matters."
But homeless parents of homeless teens know you can't protect them if you aren't with them -- and because of that-- homeless parents have no way to protect their older kids.