Health and health needs of homeless and runaway youth

A position paper of the Society for Adolescent Medicine
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      The experience of runaway and homeless youth in the United States is not entirely unique and should be viewed in an international context. The youth in this country do have some unique characteristics and needs. Homeless youth in affluent societies such as ours are often on the streets for different reasons than those of their counterparts in developing countries. Nonetheless, life on the streets brings with it hazards for all homeless young people. Homeless youth are at risk for a number of serious physical and mental health problems, some resulting in pain and discomfort, others in disability and death.
      Less dramatic, but just as critical, is the role that homelessness plays in disrupting an adolescent's healthy development. Many of the youth who become homeless come from dysfunctional families where physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and substance abuse are common.
      Homelessness and the experiences associated with homelessness further negatively impact youths' physical, emotional, psychologic, and social development. As a result, most do not develop a healthy sense of self, nor do they establish healthy, supportive peer relationships. The majority of homeless youth drop out of school during their early teens. Thus, they miss the opportunity to develop the kinds of problem-solving and intellectual skills required for securing and maintaining employment as adults.
      Homeless youth involved in alcohol and other drug abuse are even more likely to have significant deficits and may be more irresponsible and emotionally immature. Thus, a vicious cycle is established. Rather than acquiring the types of enriching experiences and skills that would enable them to develop into healthy adults, homeless youth become over time more alienated from society. As a result, many will become chemically dependent and chronically homeless adults.
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