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121 MARCH 2009
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Kids on the street they have something to say: Survey of runaway and homeless youth

Kathleen Kufeldt and Margaret Nimmo

In order to obtain a better understanding of runaway and homeless youth, a one-year field study was undertaken. The intent was to locate the youngsters in order to obtain perceptions of their situation and a realistic picture of their needs. The article describes the methods used to access an elusive, poorly defined population; sensitive ethical issues are delineated; and preliminary findings are presented.

A growing concern in urban centres of North America is the increasing number of youngsters to be found on the street, apparently homeless and without visible means of support. Various theories have emerged regarding the runaway phenomenon (Brennan, 1980; Libertoff, 1980; Nye, 1980; Roberts, 1982). Two highly contrasted theories are the view that running way is a developmental need to seek independence “ an adventure seeking “rite of passage” versus the view that it may be in fact an adaptive response to unhealthy, abusive or deprived living conditions. Also cited in the literature as possible causal factors are problems within the parent-child relationship (Spillane-Grieco, 1984; Borgman, 1986) and the serious issues of physical and sexual abuse (Bolton, Reich and Gutierres, 1977; Gutierres and Reich, 1981; Konopka, 1966; Reich and Gutierres, 1979; Farber et al., 1984).

Kosof (1977), by contrast, suggests that in different decades different problems surface for adolescents. She cites the flower child phenomenon of the sixties as a flight from the predominant American lifestyle, whereas in the seventies the majority of youngsters are on the run from unbearable home situations. A major question then may be whether different phenomena prevail in the eighties. A further question for the present writers is whether the phenomenon of runaway and homeless youth in the eighties is unique to a specific community, or in fact is similar, regardless of the political boundaries that exist in North America.

Background to the study
Early in 1984 the Boys' and Girls' Club of Calgary took a leadership role in investigating the issue of the number of youths that were on the streets of Calgary (a growing city with a population of over half a million) with no apparent accessible resources to survive. The director of Project Outreach contacted a variety of community services which were mandated to serve youth and who might have regular contact with youngsters who were runaway and/or homeless. A consultation group was organized to encourage the networking of services for this particular population. It soon became apparent that although thirteen different agencies and services were represented, the actual resources available were limited. The most crucial gap was the provision of emergency shelter and food. While the group believed that these services should be provided, it was agreed nevertheless that a first priority was to obtain a better understanding of the population “ its size, who these youth were, why they were on the street and how they perceived their needs. It was commendable that this group of professionals was prepared to take time to learn from the youths themselves before attempting to promote any one service delivery plan. Too often they are the last to be heard (Kufeldt, 1984).

There was an acknowledgement that one finding might be that some youth were running from the very agencies attempting to be of service to them. Nevertheless there was consensus that insight into why the youngsters ran was more important than defence of the status quo. An agreement was reached to continue meeting for one year and to carry out a needs survey of street youths. The goals established for the survey were:

  1. To determine the size and needs of the youth population between the ages of twelve and seventeen who consider themselves runaway and/or homeless.
  2. To determine the extent to which these youths were utilizing the generic services in meeting their needs.
  3. To establish to what extent their needs were not being met.
  4. To determine how these youths were meeting their own needs.

The committee agreed that after six months a report would be prepared for submission to the provincial government which would include, if warranted, recommendations for a service delivery proposal based on the data collected. The material presented in this article is derived from the first six months of the study.

Design and methodology
A research instrument in the form of an interview schedule was designed and approved by the committee. It was agreed that it would be administered by employees and volunteers of the Boys' and Girls' Club of Calgary. All interviewers participating had experience in working with youth and were trained in the administration of the survey. For safety reasons interviewers went on the streets in pairs, and to augment the Club’s resources, social work students from the University of Calgary were recruited as companions for the interviewers. The students proved to be invaluable, not only as escorts, but also because they were very successful in engaging the youngsters in conversation and in obtaining their co-operation in the research endeavour.

In order to observe this population as holistically as possible, the interview schedule did not focus specifically on one area. Rather it was designed to explore a broad perspective in order to develop as much insight as possible regarding the youths as individuals as well as their current situation. Given the lack of a sampling frame it was decided that the survey should be conducted in the downtown core of the city, an area consisting of seventy city blocks, with sampling occurring on the basis of “expert choice,” and the support and guidance of the street kids themselves. The interviewers, although they had all worked with youth, had no initial picture of how this group could be accurately identified and approached. There was no available documentation or “expert” available that could aid in opening the door. Not unexpectedly the young people were very cautious about talking to adults, and the first two days “on the street” proved very frustrating, with only four surveys completed. Then by chance a very positive contact was made with an older “street” person. His confidence was gained as to the intentions of the survey and it was he who introduced the interviewers to the youths with the assurance that it was “okay to talk.” To the amazement of the interviewers the effectiveness of the “street” grapevine was demonstrated. From this point on the youths were easy to find, approach and talk to. Youths approached often knew about the survey before being told. From the scared twelve year old to the defiant seventeen year old, from the drug pusher to the prostitute, the majority were prepared to give the interviewers their time and some of their background.

The committee was concerned with developing as true a picture as possible of the runaway/homeless phenomenon. It was agreed therefore that to avoid the limitations of a single cross-sectional “snapshot” the survey would be conducted during the last week of every month, Monday through Friday, for a period of one year. The survey began in the last week of August 1984 and was completed at the end of July 1985. Interviewers went on the street in the late afternoon and remained out until 2:00 a.m., regardless of the weather. If the youths were out so were the interviewers. The total number of youths interviewed during the first six months was 405 (an average of sixty-eight per month).

Ethical issues
Participation in the survey was completely voluntary, anonymity was guaranteed and the interviewers fully explained the survey and the youths” rights before the interview commenced. Interviewers introduced themselves by first name and explained their affiliation with the Boys' and Girls' Club. The interviewers read the questions to the youngsters and completed the survey. It was signed by the interviewer and the companion observer in the youngster’s presence. At the end of the interview the youngster was asked if there was anything that he/she would wish the interviewers to do. Each was thanked for the time in assisting with the research and informed where results would be available.

Before the street work could begin some very sensitive issues were addressed and resolved. These included informed consent; what action should be taken regarding the youths possibly incriminating themselves and/or disclosing allegations of abuse; and whether or not youngsters on the run from child welfare or youth facilities should be returned.

With respect to informed consent, consent of parent or guardian of the adolescent runaways was obviously out of the question. In the event that the youngster did have a parent residing in the city, it was unlikely, given the circumstances, that they would wait around for such a contact to be made. Yet in weighing the “harm versus benefit” aspect of the research, it was perceived to be unfair to leave the youngsters in their present predicament and in possible danger. However, Alberta’s Child Welfare Act recognizes the right and capability of children, and in particular, those over the age of twelve, to be consulted and to give consent in various circumstances.

The question of disclosure of incriminating material generated considerable debate at the committee level. Again there was a commendable level of interest among the services and agencies represented in finding out about these youths, who they were, where they were from and what their life was like on the street. It was generally assumed that some did resort to criminal activity to survive. Consensus was reached that the extent of the risk of introduction and/or exposure to deviant life styles was the salient fact of survival, rather than the deviant behaviour of individual youngsters. They were therefore asked whether they had “ever been approached to engage in illegal or immoral activity” rather than whether they had actually engaged in such activity. In this way it was hoped to avoid both stigmatizing the youngsters and asking them to incriminate themselves.

With regard to those youngsters who were alleging abuse, or who had left child care facilities, their right to anonymity could not be violated. Nevertheless, interviewers were instructed and trained to offer assistance where this was warranted. The city police offered excellent co-operation in helping direct such youngsters to crisis services. Again the overriding concern at this point was to obtain knowledge of the population, to develop a clear understanding of what services they might need, rather than coercing them unwillingly into residential facilites. Commendably, the relevant agencies gave consent and approval to these protocols.

In summary, the sensitivity of some of the questions was well recognized by the committee. The ethical issues and dilemmas were thoroughly debated. The overriding ethical concern was the need to obtain answers, to develop knowledge, such that any service delivery proposal would be appropriate to the needs of these youngsters.

Preliminary findings
From the results of preliminary analysis of the first six months' data, it was possible to state that during any given month, an average of sixty-eight young people were contacted on the street. Their ages ranged from twelve to seventeen, with the average age being 15.6. Of these youngsters, seventy percent were currently on the run or considered themselves homeless. Thirty percent had experienced at least one run during the past year but were currently back at home. In fact our data suggest that we should distinguish between two different populations, sporadic runners, the “ins and outers” and the true runaways, or homeless youth.

The former are those who absent themselves frequently from home, staying away for short periods, whereas the runaways leave and stay away. The ins and outers run an average of two times per year, staying away from home for approximately two weeks. The runaway/homeless are more likely to have left home once during the past year and to have been away from home from one month to three years. They included virtually equal numbers of boys and girls, whereas the ins and outers were more likely to be girls (seventy-three percent). The data also provided us with an interesting overview of the runaway/ homeless youths and of their experience on the street. Nearly half of them stated that they did not have their parents' permission to be on the street; furthermore, six percent of the ins and outers and twenty-nine percent of the runaways no longer knew where their parents were. While the two groups had similar reasons for running, there were some interesting differences in the percentages reporting particular reasons. The two major reasons overall were poor communication in the home (fifty-three percent) and some form of abuse (thirty-three percent). Table 1 compares the two groups with respect to poor communication and type of abuse.

Table 1: Reasons for running – Street kids in Calgary

N = 286
Ins and outers
N = 122
Poor communication with parents or caretakers

Sexual abuse

Physical abuse

Alcohol or drug abuse in parent or child






More than one reason can be given.

The results indicated that the causative model involving reasons for youths to run is not a simple one. All gave more than one reason for leaving home. Furthermore, we asked only for the reason for leaving: we did not determine what might have been the actual trigger or precipitating factor. Interestingly only six percent of the total sample indicated that they had run “for fun” or to “experience life.”

The family situation the youngsters had run from also shows interesting differences. (See Table 2).

Table 2: Family situations youngsters ran from

N =286
Ins and outers
N = 122
Both biological parents

Single parents

Recombined families


From child care facilities*








* (These figures included youngsters who had also stated their family of origin)

In order to avoid asking subjects directly whether they had engaged in criminal activity, an admission which would have posed many ethical dilemmas for the researchers, the young people were asked whether they had been “approached” by someone who suggested or requested them to do anything illegal. We know in fact from direct observation that many kids on the street can only survive by engaging in the kinds of illegal activity which other street contacts suggest to them.

Length of time spent on the street and number of runs were clearly related to the number of approaches to the young people. We estimate that at least half of permanent street kids survive by illegal activities; these financial gains are often shared with street peers.

Table 3: Approached to engage in illegal activity

Activity Runners In and outers

Theft/breaking and entering

Drug dealing

Other illegal activity*






Note: More than one type of approach often mentioned. Statistics presented in this table only are derived from the full 12 months.

* Includes production of pornography, bootlegging and packing (carrying drugs)

This six month survey provided the writers with some insights into the phenomenon of runaway/ homeless youth. The results of the survey distinguished two distinct populations living on the streets of Calgary. At this preliminary stage of analysis there seems to be no one universal cause or solution to the problem of running away. We believe it to be as complex and as individual as the youths themselves. Two major tasks remain for the researchers. One is the continuing analysis of the data which is now available for the full twelve months of the study including a more extensive statistical analysis of data, and a search for relationships and testing for significance.

The second task anticipated by the agency is the development of a program to assist those youngsters in the earlier stages of runaway behaviour. A service delivery proposal has been developed for a safe house and for assistance to the youths and their families in resolving their conflicts and difficulties before they become insurmountable, and lead to a permanent run. This proposal was approved and funding committed for operating costs for three years by the Alberta Ministry of Social Services.

At this preliminary stage of analysis we detect no major difference between our findings and others documented in the North American literature, although our discovery of two kinds of street kid, the intermittent runners and the permanent street population, has considerable implications for child care practice.


Bolton, F., Reich, J. and Gutierres, S. (1977). Delinquency Patterns in Maltreated Children and Siblings. Victimology, 2, 2. pp. 349-357.

Borgman, R. (1986). Don’t come home again: Parental banishment of delinquent youths. Child Welfare, 65. pp. 295-304.

Brennan, T. (1980). Mapping the diversity among runaways. Journal of Family Issues, 1. pp. 189-209.

Farber, E., Kinast, C., McCoard, W. and Falkner, D. (1984). Violence in families of adolescent runaways. Child Abuse and Neglect, 8. pp. 295-299.

Gutierres, S. and Reich, J. (1981). A developmental perspective on runaway behaviour: Its relationship to child abuse. Child Welfare, 60, 2. pp. 89-94.

Konopka, G. (1966). The Adolescent Girl in Conflict. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kosof, A. (1977). Runaways. New York: Franklin Watts.

Kufeldt, K. (1984). Listening to children-who cares. British Journal of Social Work, 14, 3. pp. 257-264.

Libertoff, D. (1980). The runaway child in America: A social history. Journal of Family Issues, 1. pp. 151-164.

Nye, F. (1980). A theoretical perspective on running away. Journal of Family Issues, 1. pp. 274-299.

Reich, J. and Gutierres, S. (1979). Escape/ aggression incidence in sexually abused juvenile delinquents. Criminal Justice and Behaviour, 6, 3. pp. 239-243.

Roberts, A. (1982). Adolescent runaways in suburbia: A new typology. Adolescence, 17. pp. 387-396.

Spillane-Grieco, E. (1984). Feelings and perceptions of parents of runaways. Child Welfare, 63, 2. pp.159-166.

This feature: Kufeldt, K. and Nimmo, M. (1987). Kids on the street they have something to say: Survey of runaway and homeless youth. Journal of Child Care, 3, 2. pp. 53-61.

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