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Study sheds light on hidden population of homeless teens

STANFORD -- Public and private support agencies may be seeing only half the picture when it comes to homeless teenagers, a Stanford study in the Bay Area suggests.

In extensive interviews with 50 homeless adolescents in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties last year, only 48 percent said they used shelters or drop-in centers.

The remaining 52 percent were a hidden population, so afraid they would be sent home or placed in foster care that they shunned all contact with service providers and what they viewed as the authoritarian adult world.

"I would rather be homeless," one street teen said. "It is cold and miserable on the streets, but it is better than being beaten up by parents who don't care."

These street teens lived in "families" of as many as 20 adolescents, huddling under bridges, in woods, on beaches or in abandoned buildings. Most were forced to support themselves by panhandling, theft, drug sales or prostitution.

The homeless teenager study was part of a broader Stanford Studies of Homeless Families, Children and Youth, headed by Stanford sociologist Sanford Dornbusch. The interviews were conducted by Todd Rubin, a Stanford junior who took a year off from his regular academic work to complete the project.

Homeless teens who used shelters and those who didn't shared similar levels of psychological distress and troubled family backgrounds, the researchers found.

Fully 92 percent of those surveyed came from broken homes. Half reported family alcoholism and 40 percent reported drug abuse. In addition, 56 percent of the teens reported physical abuse and 38 percent reported sexual abuse in their families.

"There are throwaway, as well as runaway, teens among the homeless youths," the researchers said. "The parents of throwaway teens, those who were forced out, felt that the teens caused too many problems. The teens also mentioned frequent conflict with parents, lack of money or room, and teenage pregnancy and homosexuality. Most teenage homeless were not wanted nor well cared for."

Still, it was the differences between street teens and sheltered teens that researchers found most striking.

Of street teens surveyed, 69 percent said they had experienced the death or suicide of friends, compared with 17 percent of sheltered teens; and 62 percent of the street teens said they had attempted suicide themselves, compared with 39 percent of sheltered youths, the study reported.

Fully 88 percent of the street teens reported panhandling to support themselves, 62 percent reported stealing, half said they had dealt or carried drugs and 42 percent reported prostitution. In contrast, only 25 percent of sheltered teens reported panhandling, 21 percent stealing, 17 percent selling drugs and none engaging in prostitution.

Health problems - including strep throat, bladder infections, anemia, malnutrition, venereal diseases, stomach ulcers, hepatitis, scabies and substance abuse - also were much more prevalent among the street teens.

Every one of the street teens was sexually active, compared with 75 percent of the sheltered teens. Both groups were aware of safe sex practices, but 46 percent of street teens and 32 percent of sheltered teens reported having had unprotected sex within the past six months.

"We may speculate that for these teenagers, the problems of living on the street overshadow the specter of AIDS," the researchers said. "As one 16-year-old explained, 'Why would I worry about dying from AIDS in the future when I don't know if I'm going to survive until tomorrow?' "

What street teens did fear was being sent home or placed in custodial care. The fear was well grounded: Service providers are mandated to notify parents or civil authorities of a teen's request for assistance, and agencies can provide shelter for only a limited period without such notification.

"Street teens were interested in obtaining assistance, but they were reluctant to make lasting commitments to get such help," the researchers said. "Almost no street teens expressed an interest in family re-unification or residential placement."

Instead, street teens were interested in help without strings attached: a place to sleep, a job or job training, food, a place to clean up, medical and dental care, and counseling.

The researchers suggested a greater emphasis on outreach programs as a way of meeting their needs.



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