Homeless Children and Runaways in the United States

The population of homeless children in the United States is estimated to range from five hundred thousand to more than two million. Historical studies of homelessness in general have concentrated on urban homeless men living on skid row. A 1996 National Rural Health Association study found rural homeless people so elusive that they refer to them as America's lost population. Large numbers of homeless and runaway children have always roamed the streets of every major city in the United States as well as the countryside, from small towns to remote rural areas.

The issues surrounding homeless children and runaways generally have been either ignored or altogether unknown; and, when the issues have been acknowledged, the discussion has most often focused on homeless families with children, not independent children with no homes to which they can return. The extent to which the populations of homeless children and runaways overlap is unknown, partly because there are no commonly agreed upon definitions of the terms homeless and runaway. Fortunately, there has been some research on homeless children in recent decades. Works such as Mark Nord and A. E. Luloff's "Homeless Children and Their Families in New Hampshire: A Rural Perspective," for example, have shown that childhood homelessness is a rural problem as well as an urban problem and that there are some significant differences between the two groups.

The History of Homeless and Runaway Children

Homeless and runaway children, although not specifically mentioned in early vagrancy laws, have existed since the early settlement of the United States. Throughout the country's history, the conditions of larger society, such as a frequently depressed industrial economy that struggled with overproduction and labor surpluses, resulted in family upheaval. Sara A. Brown (1922) lists reasons children ran away from home during the early twentieth century: death of parents, abusive home life, broken homes, feeblemindedness, DELINQUENCY, and poverty. The major difference between runaway children and homeless children was that runaways chose to leave their home for the reasons above while homeless children were victims of social and economic factors that left them without shelter for varying lengths of time.

As Gregg Barak has shown, treatment of homeless and runaway children was strongly influenced by the ideology of social Darwinism, particularly the EUGENICS movement. The eugenics movement was based on the belief that selective breeding and breeding control would rid society of the inferior genetic material that was responsible for crime, mental illness, and retardation. Sterilization laws were an important tool of the eugenics movement. If homeless or runaway children were determined to be feeble-minded, it was not uncommon for them to be institutionalized and sterilized.

The first state to pass sterilization laws was Indiana, in 1907. By 1944, thirty states had passed sterilization laws and forty thousand men, women, and children had been sterilized. Between 1945 and 1963, another twenty-two thousand people were sterilized. California sterilized the largest number at twenty thousand, followed by Virginia, with eight thousand. Virginia's sterilization program did not officially end until 1979. Homeless and runaway children and adolescents were the most likely to be sterilized.

Homeless and runaway children have been the victims of changing societal attitudes toward vagrancy over the years. Barak describes the early discussions and definitions of vagrancy laws, in which children were referred to as waifs and were included in the definition of hobos, tramps, vagabonds, beggars, and bums. The early definitions included terms such as wandering, deviating, devious, aberrant, undisciplined, twisted, freakish, and maggoty. Reform Darwinism, the ideology of the Progressive Era introduced around the turn of the twentieth century, carried somewhat kinder judgments of poor homeless children. Barak notes that the definition of the term waif changed to include words such as homeless, forlorn, abandoned, deserted, desolate, friendless, helpless, defenseless, indigent, and destitute.

However, along with the kinder definitions of poor homeless children came the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. The deserving poor were considered worthy of public assistance because the causes of their poverty were beyond their individual control. The undeserving poor, however, were poor due to their flawed characters and personal faults, and were thus unworthy of aid. It was believed that if the undeserving poor were given assistance, their numbers would simply increase.

A large percentage of Americans in the early twentieth century recognized that poor homeless people were victims not only of individual circumstances, but often and perhaps more importantly of institutional and structural arrangements. For example, many rural communities were accessible by automobile only during certain seasons of the year; therefore, social service agencies literally could not expand their services into remote areas in a consistent manner. However, any allowances made for causes external to the individual only went so far and were applied only to the socially defined deserving poor.

The distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor was applied to homeless and runaway children as well. Children who had lost their homes due to societal conditions fell into the category of deserving poor; runaway children who chose to leave their homes, for whatever reason, fell into the category of undeserving poor. Only deserving homeless children were viewed as unfortunate and in need of human services and caring intervention. Runaway children were viewed as vagrants and criminals deserving punitive forms of intervention from people trying to rid themselves and their environment of spoiled goods. This attitude resulted in homeless children and runaways being abused and used as cheap labor by agriculturalists and industrialists.

Research indicates that people continued to discriminate against homeless children and runaways throughout the twentieth century. Johann Le Roux and Cheryl S. Smith examined attitudes toward urban homeless children and runaways and found that street children in the 1990s lived under a constant threat of violence and maltreatment. Some people regarded them as nuisances, and some regarded them as criminals.

Rural homeless and runaway children of the past had much in common with their counterparts of today as well. Their problems included distance from neighbors, school, church, stores, doctors, mail services, and telephones, bad roads, and a lack of social activities, wholesome recreation, and community school spirit. Brown reported in 1922 that of approximately five hundred thousand rural children under eighteen years of age in West Virginia, twenty-five thousand were dependent on people other than their parents for shelter, food, and clothing. Her study of 1,005 homeless children included children from broken homes, children who lived in hit-or-miss situations where they sometimes had homes for a while, children born out of wedlock, and feeble-minded children with feeble-minded parents. She described these children as unofficial wards of the community: some families provided for them, but those provisions were never totally predictable for the children.

In 2000, Peggy Shifflett reported the results of a study of contemporary adults who grew up between 1930 and 1960 as homeless children in a rural Virginia community. Homeless and runaway children in this community were called fieldrabbits because they roamed the roads with no attachment to their parents, and particularly their fathers. The adults reported that when they were homeless as children they were often beaten and forced to work, at minimal or no wages, for community families. Other families provided for their needs, and they knew from experience which families would feed them and give them a bed for a night. From this community, six adolescents were institutionalized and sterilized.

The Current Status of Homeless and Runaway Children

In 1989, the American Medical Association (AMA) called for research on the health-care needs of homeless and runaway children. They reported that they had no way of knowing the extent to which the populations of homeless children and runaway children overlapped, and noted that any attempt to distinguish between homeless and runaway children would be artificial since the health needs of both groups are likely the same. For the first time in the literature on homeless and runaway children the AMA had moved away from labeling poor children deserving and undeserving. However, the AMA's focus was still on urban children–the homeless and runaway children who roam the streets of every major city in this country.

Janet Fitchen reported in her 1991 article that homelessness in rural America is still generally overlooked and ignored because it does not fit urban-based perceptions and definitions. Most Americans think of the homeless as living in boxes in alleys and sleeping on subway benches or in homeless shelters. Rural homeless people do not fit these images. In fact, few rural people are literally homeless in the sense of not having a roof over their heads. However, the roof they have may be only a car roof or a shed roof; it may be the leaky roof of a dilapidated farmhouse or an isolated shack with no running water, or the temporary roof of an old mobile home already full of relatives or friends.

Nord and Luloff reported in 1995 that there was a strong stigma associated with homelessness in rural areas. As a result, homeless children suffer from loneliness and depression. They are more likely to be diagnosed as retarded in school and relegated to SPECIAL EDUCATION classes for the learning disabled. Homeless children do attend school, but are inclined to drop out at age sixteen. Attention deficit disorder is the most frequent diagnosis, with emotionally disturbed bringing up a close second. Teachers often report homeless children as inattentive and sleepy in class. Most of these diagnoses result from inadequate sleep and poor nutrition.

The American Medical Association in 1989 summarized the health issues of homeless and runaway children as being the same as those faced by homeless people in general. The one exception is that older children tend to be healthier by virtue of their age and the shorter length of time they have been homeless. The health problems faced by homeless and runaway children can be grouped into six categories: nutrition, substance abuse, mental health, physical health, sexual health, and victimization.

Nutritional deficiencies are common. This situation has frightening implications for the health and well-being of children born to homeless adolescent females, among whom pregnancy is fairly common. Large numbers of homeless and runaway children drink regularly and up to one-half have diagnosable alcohol problems. The abuse of other DRUGS is also common. Homeless children are also afflicted with mental health problems, the most common of which are depression and self-destructive behavior, including SUICIDE.

The physical health of homeless and runaway children is challenged by exposure to the elements, lack of sleeping quarters, and the absence of a clean home. The most common problems reported are upper respiratory tract infections, minor skin ailments, and gastrointestinal tract problems. Sexual health problems include genitourinary disorders, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. Because homeless and runaway children are too young to work and lack marketable skills, they are often recruited by criminals involved in the illegal drug trade, prostitution, and pornography. They are either active participants in these activities or serve as recruiters of other vulnerable children.

Experts generally agree that homelessness among children is increasing in both rural and urban areas. The causes are social in nature. These children are often homeless along with their mothers and are victims of economic recessions, job loss, and high housing costs. Data on the extent of the problem is inadequate and can be found only in isolated case studies. Virtually nothing is known about the needs of racial and ethnic subgroups within the young homeless population or about what happens to these young people as they age.

See also: Foster Care; Police, Children and the; Law, Children and the; Social Welfare; Street Arabs and Street Urchins.


American Medical Association. 1989. "Health Care Needs of Homeless and Runaway Youth." Journal of the American Medical Association 262: 1358−1362.

Barak, Gregg. 1991. Gimme Shelter: A Social History of Homelessness in Contemporary America. New York: Praeger.

Brown, Sara A. 1922. "Rural Child Dependency, Neglect, and Delinquency." In Rural Child Welfare, ed. Edward N. Clopper. NewYork: Macmillan.

Fitchen, Janet. 1991. "Homelessness in Rural Places: Perspectives from Upstate New York." Urban Anthropology 20: 177−210.

Le Roux, Johann, and Cheryl Sylvia Smith. 1998. "Public Perceptions of, and Reactions to, Street Children." Adolescence 33: 901−910.

National Rural Health Association. 1996. The Rural Homeless: America's Lost Population. Kansas City, MO: The National Rural Health Association.

Nord, Mark, and A. E. Luloff. 1995. "Homeless Children and Their Families in New Hampshire: A Rural Perspective." Social ScienceReview (September): 463−478.

Shifflett, Peggy A. 2000. "Rural Homeless Children." Paper presented at the Annual Conference on the History of Childhood, August 1−3, Washington, DC.