homeless and runaway young people is viewed by many authorities as a human rights condition that grows out of poverty and victimization, often right in their family settings, and later, in the street (Farrow 1992) where they are further exposed to violence and other forms of dysfunction..
The International Perspective on the Health Needs of Homeless Youth uses the terms "street children" to refer to those below 18 years old who live through various ways in the streets. The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund or UNICEF estimated that there were between 30 and 170 million street children and youth in the world (Farrow 1992). The UNICEF divided these young people broadly into a larger group and a smaller group, the larger one, consisting of youngsters who engaged in some economic activity in the streets and often returned to their families at night. The smaller group consisted of young people who thrived in the streets by working and living there although some had family ties. UNICEF estimated that 75% of all street children belonged to the larger group, which the UNICEF described as "on the street," and 20% were "of the streets," while only 5% were truly abandoned, or without family ties (Farrow).
Harrowing and immovable poverty was seen as the foundation of homelessness in most countries and which prevented the family from providing the basic developmental needs of children and other young people. With or without family ties, these young people engaged in economic activities, including casual work, marginal occupations and the informal sector (Farrow 1992). The informal sector was made up of small, competitive and family-owned and run trades, such as selling candies and cigarettes, clearing garbage, car windshield wash, watching cars and carrying luggage. International figures revealed that many of these homeless youth were exposed to huge health risks, including Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome or AIDS (Farrow), and to sexual orientations, such as homosexuality and bisexuality, prostitution and substance abuse.
Runaway and homeless youth were not new in the U.S. In the 19th and 20th centuries, many young men would leave home in the pursuit of some adventure or out of rebellion towards strict parents. It then became easy for them to get incorporated into a new group and to find work. In the 60s, many young people left their families and homes and joined subcultures or countercultures and, in those times, the incidence was not adequately recorded that could today reflect the role and extent of abuse, dysfunction and neglect. A 1968 study of young male prostitutes showed that most of them came from dysfunctional families. Records in the mid-70s to the present increasingly show that street life exposes these young people to all kinds of risk, including sexual exploitation and drug abuse.
Many of these homeless young people are called "runaways" who are described by the Runaway and Homeless Youth Ace as juveniles who leave and stay away from home without parental consent (Farrow 1992). Of the different categories of runaways, the largest is composed of situational runaways, who leave their homes for a day or two because of a conflict or disagreement and eventually return home after a few days. They can join a chronic runaway group, composed of other young people who left home because of neglect, abuse or some other serious problems. If they stay away from home longer, they become chronic runaways, and eventually turn into street children or youth.
These chronic runaways do not return home at all but abide in friends' dwellings, cheap hotels or squat in some abandoned shelter (Farrow). They take full charge of their own survival and, in the process, fall prey to violence and other dangers.
Studies reveal that many of these runaways leave home because of conflict with their parents over the youth's sexual orientation (Farrow 1992). There appear no reliable records on the number of homeless gay adolescents because many heterosexual young males also engage in homosexual activities or relationships for money. A study (Stricof as qtd in Farrow) in 1988 says that 20% of subject male runaways in New York acknowledged that they were gay. Another study in the same year (Yates et al. As qtd in Farrow) says that 16.5% of males interviewed admitted engaging in gay or bisexual activities.
The other and smaller groups of runaways are the "throwaways" and the systems youth. "Throwaways" are those whose parents abandoned them, asked them to leave or subjected them to extreme abuse or neglect. And systems youth are those who often have no more family contact and previously living in private or public institutions or foster homes, but have left these and have become part of the runaway culture (Farrow 1992). Those younger than 11 are usually returned but older and unwilling ones remain in the streets and survive with other street youth. There are no accurate records of runaways, but national studies on missing children place the number of runaways to half a million and 127,000 "throwaways" although other studies raise the figures up to 2 million. They do not live in adult shelters where they can be formally counted, but independently in parks, streets, subways, and abandoned buildings and shelters (Farrow). There are more runaway girls living in shelters while there are more boys who move farther from home. Their median age is 14 to 16, while those younger are reported by parents or reach the attention of shelters.
One of the most common survival techniques to make money among these street youth is "survival sex." Both male and female street youth engage in sexual activity to buy food, secure shelter, drugs or afford protection from one older and more street-smart. Newcomers may have little or no knowledge or orientation on prostitution but making easy money through sex soon becomes less formidable to them after seeing how it works for others in the group (Farrow 1992). Prostitution among these youngsters is higher in big urban areas like New York and Los Angeles and likelier among gay adolescents.
At any given time, there are approximately 260,000 young people in foster care in the U.S. and, while there are no accurate figures, authorities believe that 5 to 10% of these are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (National Center for Lesbian Rights 2004). Many suggest that the actual figures can be higher, because young people in this category tend to be over-represented in foster care owing to the discrimination and abuse to which they are subjected in their families and in school. As many as 78% of these young people in this category are subjected to further harassment or abuse when transferred to out-of-home care. These youth soon abandon placement and live on the street rather than endure the harassment or violence at home or at care institutions (NCLR). A recent study showed that more than 30% of these gay youth are subjected to physical violence as soon as their sexual orientation is discovered. Their families reject that sexual orientation, beat them up and then send them out. They join the ranks of throwaways absorbed by child protection agencies and later moved to foster homes.
Further studies say that many gay youth enter the system by skipping or leaving school out of fear of getting discovered and harassment and discrimination in school. The studies show that more than 80% of them experienced verbal insult and harassment and almost 70% felt unsafe about their gender preference (NCLR 2003). The National Network of Runaway and Youth Services assumed that 20 to 40% of homeless youth are gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans-gendered or questioning.
The typical gay youngster in the foster care system is often neglected or discriminated against by the staff and peers. The discrimination is made easy or worse by inadequate policies, protection, support services and the staff's personal orientation against homosexuality (NCLR 2003). Few centers have policies that prohibit discrimination against gender identity or orientation in order to provide a friendly and accepting environment for gay runaway youth. Instead, they were treated with contempt and slurs, as 100% of the young subjects of a New York study claimed being subjected to verbal harassments and 70% to physical violence. Studies showed that such the tormentors were not only peers but also the staff and social workers themselves (NCLR). The youth were called names, laughed at, isolated or moved by the institution to a more restrictive facility for fear that they would victimize the other youth in that institution.
These youngsters were made to feel bad and blameworthy for the treatment and subjected to some form of conversion therapy in the hope that their mental or emotional setup could be altered (NCLR). Many of them conceal their homosexuality rather than endure the mistreatment or confront the basis for their gender choice. If they reach their limits, they abandon the institution and live in the streets as waifs. These are no isolated cases but sadly the standard treatment received by these problem youth whose number has reached alarming limits and magnitude. While there are well-meaning…