The traditional American dream of owning a home, obtaining a college education, and working at a good, paying job is only that, a dream, for scores of homeless youth in America today. There is a growing street population of young people who have been thrown out of their homes by their caretakers or their families, and who face life-threatening situations each day. For these youth, the furthest thing in their lives is reaching the so-called “American Dream;” and their most immediate need is survival, simply living out the day in front of them. They have few options that lead to a decent and safe living environment. Their age, lack of work experience, and absence of a high school diploma make it most difficult to find a job. As a result, they turn to other means for survival; runaways and throwaways are most vulnerable to falling prey to the sex trade, selling drugs, or being lured into human trafficking, and some steal or panhandle. Street youth end up spending their nights in bus stations or finding a room in an abandoned building or an empty stairwell to sleep. Attempting to identify a specific number of homeless youth is difficult at best, but what is even more perplexing is our continued inability to effectively protect our children. We are left with a basic question framed by the fundamental tenets of justice: what is a community’s responsibility to its youth who, for whatever reason, end up living on the streets or in unsafe, abusive environments? The purpose of this paper is to briefly outline the characteristics of homeless youth, in particular differentiating between throwaways and runaways; explore the current federal response to homeless youth; and finally, address the nagging question that swirls around all children: can we aggressively aspire to be a community where every child is healthy and safe, and able to realize his or her fullest potential?

Key Take Away Points

• Significant differences exist between runaway and throwaway youth;

• It can be impossible to develop an accurate "count" of street youth; and,

• Public policies are not in place to protect throwaway youth.

Author Biography

Professor Ira Colby is Dean of the Graduate College of Social Work, University of Houston, and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of Texas. He received his D.S.W. from the University of Pennsylvania, M.S.W. from Virginia Commonwealth University, and a B.S. from Springfield College. Dean Colby has nearly 35 years of teaching and administrative experience in higher education having served on the faculties of Ferrum College (VA), University of Texas-Arlington, University of Central Florida, and the University of Houston where he is in his 12th year as dean. Dr. Colby is the past President of the Council on Social Work Education and has served on a number of local, national, and international boards including the International Association of Schools of Social Work, the Advocacy Network for Social Work Education and Research, the program planning committee for the Joint World Social Work Congress to be held in Hong Kong in 2010. Currently, he serves on the Mental Health Association of American – Houston board of directors and is a member of the Harris County (TX) Sherriff’s Task Force on Mental Health and the Jail. He has served as the principal investigator of many research projects, accumulating approximately five million U.S. dollars in external funding. Dr. Colby has authored or co-authored 58 publications including the widely used text, Introduction to Social Work, the Peoples’ Profession, which is now in its third edition, and he has presented 96 invitational or refereed papers and talks in the United States and abroad. In addition, Dr. Colby serves on a number of editorial boards including Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work Best Practices in Mental Health: An International Journal and Welfare and Society. Dr. Colby is a Distinguished Scholar of the National Academies of Practice in Social Work and a member of Phi Kappa Phi and Phi Alpha honorary societies. Dean Colby’s international work has taken him to more then 20 different nations including a teaching appointment at the University of Wales; he currently serves as the external examiner for the Department of Applied Social Sciences, City Univesity of Hong Kong and is a member of the Assessment Panel for the Hong Kong Social Workers Registration Board. His work has been recognized with a number of awards, including the receipient of an Honorary Doctorate in Humanics from Springfield College (MA), the Distinguished Alumni Award of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work, a Texas State Senate Resolution for Outstanding Contributions to the state, the Tarrant County (Texas) Social Worker of the Year, the Central Florida Social Worker of the Year, and the Teaching Excellence Award from the University of Texas-Arlington.



Responses to this Article:

Linda M. Williams, Community Responsibility for Runaway and Thrownaway Youth--Commentary (March 2011)