In Gainesville, adolescents who run away from home are frequently left homeless without shelter or resources. For the Interface Youth Center and the Alachua County School Board, combating this problem starts with education.
“One out of five kids run away during the course of their adolescent years,” Radha Selvester, the Community Outreach/Safe Place Specialist for the Interface Youth Center, said. “The number one risk factor for running away is family conflict.”
Approximately 1.6 million children in the United States live on the streets every night. Officials working to combat this problem seek to educate the public on the resources available to any child or family in trouble.
The issue was first brought to light in the 1960s when the FBI began recording statistics of runaway teens. An estimated 70,000 children had run away from home. A decade later, the number rose to over 1 million. Later the Runaway Youth and Homeless Act has been approved, providing funding to create help centers and shelters for at-risk children.
One of the first centers was created in Gainesville.
“[The children] are vulnerable to traffickers and other dangers,” Selvester said. “We try really hard to not let the kids run away.”
One initiative focuses on educating the public on the warning signs of troubled youth. School attendance and performance is one of the biggest indicators of family conflict or home-life stresses that lead to children running away.
“Many students do not want to divulge this information,” Nadia Gladden, the McKinney-Vento Coordinator for the Alachua County School Board, said, “so we look at how people present themselves.”
Officials on the school board carefully examine the patterns in standardized test scores and school attendance. Low performance and dropout rates can be a big indicator in a troubled home life. Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, homeless students are able to still receive the education benefits that other students receive.
Gladden and her team work to make sure that these students not only receive the same opportunities as others, but that they seek the help they need to manage their situation.
“We have about 100 students a year that are not in the care of a parent or guardian,” Gladden said. “The ones that are in dire need are those that are in places not meant for human shelter.”
These students are often referred to the Interface Youth Center, where shelter and services are provided to help combat homelessness.
“We hear a lot about the conditions at home,” Cassandra Evans-McCray, the Regional Coordinator for the Interface Youth Center, said. “Instead of running to something, [the children] are running from something.”
The center offers counseling, shelter and access to educational resources for its youth, focusing on behavior. This not only improves their school performance, but it also provides a step forward in creating a better home life.
While school-related factors such as skipping classes and suspension due to ungovernable behavior are risk-factors for runaway youth, Evans-McCray sites less severe issues as among the biggest indicators. Poor communication skills have greatly affected children and their family relationships.
“Our goal is for families and youth to use our services before children run away,” Evans-McCray said.
Behavior serves as one of the biggest indicators that a youth might be in trouble. Each year, officials in Alachua County get closer to identifying behavioral patterns and urge the public to be cognizant of warning signals within their own communities.
“It is important to identify a family that needs services versus identifying a youth that might be homeless,” Evans-McCray said. “Offering to seek help rather than [directly] providing help can help them with opening up.”