A recent annual report from the National Runaway Safeline says that each year, roughly 250,000 children and adolescents call expressing concerns about their family life or home life, and anywhere from 1.6 to 2.8 billion youth run away from home. As part of its mission to help these youth, the NRS engages in a month-long community outreach program every November called National Runaway Prevention Month. The goal of the month is simple: to remind the public and at-risk youth that the Safeline is available to keep young people out of danger, and, if possible, to help them maintain positive relationships inside their homes.
The safeline provides 24/7 phone and Internet support for youth aged 13–24 who are having difficulties interacting with or remaining in their families. When it opened in 1971, the NRS communicated from its headquarters in Chicago solely through phone lines, as anonymous adolescents placed calls from all over the United States. Now, it’s expanded its program to include digital services—websites with resource links, a year-round online chat and email helpline—and is experimenting with the prospect of hearing from teens in need via text message.
“The younger population is more likely to do live chat and send email rather than picking up the phone,” said Executive Director Maureen Blaha. “Online, they’re feeling more comfortable to take the first step.”
This November, the majority of the outreach events focus on social media, including a “wear green day” to encourage people to show their support for at-risk youth, and a candlelight vigil near Chicago’s famous “Cloud Gate” sculpture. The idea for an awareness month was conceived in 2002, and November has been the designated time of year ever since.
“[November] is an opportunity for individuals, community groups, schools and corporations to step up to the plate and help raise awareness about this youth runaway and homelessness issue,” said Maureen Blaha, executive director of the National Runaway Safeline. Blaha said the main idea is “to educate the public, not only about the issue and what these young people are facing but to educate about solutions and about a role that all of us can play in working to end youth homelessness.”
Each year, National Runaway Prevention Month has a theme, and this year, the NRS has determined its theme will be friendship.
“Often for high school and middle school kids, when they’re facing some kind of crisis or they’re feeling overwhelmed about things, they’ll often turn to their peers to share their feelings, talk about what’s going on, maybe ask for some advice,” Blaha said.
Friends are not just peers, however, and Blaha said that teachers, parents or relatives can also be a part of an at-risk teen’s support network. “We’re trying to holistically look at the kindness of friends,” said Blaha, “and that’s why we selected that theme this year.”
Unfortunately, not every youth who is homeless or at risk of homelessness calls the safeline, and that is one of the agency’s primary reasons for increasing awareness this month. Youth who do reside on the streets are more likely to become involved in taking or selling drugs and are also at risk of being recruited and abused by sex traffickers.
“[Youth] are initially vulnerable to becoming victims of crime,” Blaha said. “And, after a while, they’re likely to become the perpetrators of a crime themselves. They’ll do anything to get a warm bed.”
The National Runaway Safeline is utilizing Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to spread the word about its awareness month and its work as a whole. The hotline can be reached at 1800-RUNAWAY.
“Sometimes people imagine [runaways are] bad kids, but they’re really not. They’re often struggling with some kind of crisis, and they don’t really have the tools to deal with it, and they imagine they need to get out of their home,” said Blaha. “What we want people to remember is that this is a crisis in our country, but there is a way to get involved and be a part of the solution.”