Runaway Shelters for Youth

How programs can help when a teen runs away from home

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A teen who makes the decision to run away from home needs a safe place to stay. They also benefit from addressing the issues that led to their decision. A runaway shelter for youth is designed to help these teens, also providing help for parents and guardians so the teen can transition back home.

Every year, between 1.6 million and 2.8 million youth run away. Understanding what a shelter for youth does, the services it provides, and how it can help is beneficial if you are a youth who is thinking about how to run away. It's also helpful if you are an adult who wants to find a safe place for a youth who has made the decision to run away from home.

A youth who makes the decision to run away is not a "bad kid" but, for whatever their unique reasons, feels overwhelmed and stressed at home. Teens who run away come from all types of backgrounds, from low-income to high-income, and all geographical areas, both rural and urban.

What Is a Runaway Youth Shelter?

Runaway shelters for youth provide temporary housing, food, and specialized counseling for teens who run away from home. They offer a safe place for these youth to live as they work to face and confront their individual issues and concerns.

Youth shelters also help families plan out the next steps necessary for dealing with the circumstances they face. This is important because teens who are trying to figure out how to run away (or who do run away) often do so because of family dynamics.

Family dynamics that can contribute to a teen seeking help from a shelter for youth include:

  • Conflict with family rules
  • Dealing with their parent's divorce, or being in the middle of a custody battle
  • Death of a family member
  • Teen parenting issues
  • Trouble with blended families or extended family members

Other common reasons behind a youth's decision to run away from home are being abused or neglected, mental health issues, issues with peers (such as being bullied or fighting with friends), and economic issues like housing insecurity and poverty.

Data provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development indicates that certain youth are seeking shelter at increased rates, including transgender youth (29% increase), youth who are gender non-conforming (26% increase), and Native American youth (21% increase).

Services Provided by Runaway Youth Shelters

One potential goal of a shelter for youth runaways is to reunite the family. They might do this by identifying the issues the family faces, then helping to resolve them.​ In cases where it isn't safe for the youth to return home, runaway shelters can work with the teen to find a safer and more permanent living arrangement.

Runaway shelters for youth provide a variety of services while working toward these goals, such as:

  • Offering temporary shelter and a safe place to stay
  • Regular meals
  • Resources for work, academic, medical, and other needs

Youth shelters also generally offer runaway teens access to different types of therapy. These therapies can help relieve mental health symptoms (such as depression) while also having positive effects on unhealthy coping behaviors (like substance use).

Types of therapy that may be provided at a shelter for youth include:

  • Individual therapy to help the teen articulate their reasons for running away
  • Group therapy with other teens in similar situations
  • Family therapy focused on dealing with issues the entire family unit faces
  • Counseling by phone for teens who call in

Youth shelters provide a safe place for teens to live while dealing with their reasons for running away, and the consequences of their decision to do so.

How Runaway Shelters Can Help

When a teen goes to a youth shelter, this can be a healthy decision to seek support and start resolving the issues they are experiencing. Shelters for youth are established and run by staff that is trained to understand, work with, and advocate for teens who run from difficult family relationships and troubling situations.

Shelters can assist a teen in crisis by helping to:

  • Identify the reasons that are causing the teen to run
  • Determine the next steps to deal with whatever it is the teen is running away from
  • Serve as an intermediary between the family and teen
  • Work out an initial contract outlining the "terms" that both the family and teen would follow once returning home
  • Discuss alternative living situations for the teen while family issues get worked out
  • Provide referrals to mental health therapists in the local area
  • Offer information about and access to a variety of resources that can assist the teen with the issues they are experiencing, both at home and personally

If the teen has run to a faraway location, the shelter for youth may even offer them a free bus ticket so they can return home.

How to Locate a Shelter for Youth in Your Area

Youth can contact Safe Place to help find the location of local youth shelters. Its TXT 4 HELP program allows youth to text the word SAFE and their current location (address, city, and state) to 44357 to be connected to a Safe Place site.

Another option is to call the National Runaway Safeline at 1-800-RUNAWAY as this helpline is available any time of the night or day. In addition to speaking with you by phone, they also offer connection via text, email, and even live chat, providing numerous ways to get in touch when reaching out for help.

The Family and Youth Services Bureau offers an interactive map that you can use to locate youth shelters and street outreach programs in your state. You can also look online for a listing of shelters in your area by searching for "youth shelters near me."

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How old can you be before you are too old for a youth shelter?

    Typically, shelters for youth have a cut-off age of 17. A youth who decides to leave home after turning 18 may have the option of going to a local transitional shelter or homeless shelter. These other shelters are designed to handle issues adults face when without a home, making them better equipped to address the young adult's needs.

  • Are shelters for youth safe?

    While safety data for youth shelters is lacking, research has found that the risk of being physically or sexually victimized is lower for youth staying in shelters than when sleeping on the street.

  • How can I find a youth shelter near me?

    Text the word "safe" and your location to 4HELP (44357) and you will receive a message with the nearest Safe Place youth shelter. You can also call the National Runaway Safeline at 1-800-RUNAWAY (1-800-786-2929) and they can refer you to the closest youth shelter. Alternatively, you can search online for "youth shelter near me" to find shelters not listed with these other organizations.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Family and Youth Services Bureau. Basic center program fact sheet.

  2. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. The invisible faces of runaway and homeless youth.

  3. National Runaway Safeline. Portrait of a runaway.

  4. National Runaway Safeline. 2020 snapshot.

  5. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD releases 2021 Annual Homeless Assessment Report part 1.

  6. Noh D. Psychological interventions for runaway and homeless youth. J Nursing Scholarship. 2018;50(5):465-472. doi:10.1111/jnu.12402

  7. National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. Increasing staff skills.

  8. Tyler KA, Schmitz RM. Child abuse, mental health and sleeping arrangements among homeless youth: Links to physical and sexual street victimization. Child Youth Serv Rev. 2018;95:327-333. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.11.018

By Kathryn Rudlin, LCSW
Kathyrn Rudlin, LCSW, a writer and therapist in California specializes in counseling and education for teenagers with mothers who are emotionally disconnected.