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Disability Organizations' Perspectives on the Needs of Youth with Disabilities Who Are Runaway or Homeless

Research to Practice 16


Originally published: 4/1998

Suggested audiences:


Youth who are homeless, runaway, or at risk for running away who also have a disability are often not effectively served because of complex learning and emotional needs. An original study of Family Youth and Service Bureau (FYSB) funded agencies that provide adolescent emergency shelter services and basic center services was recently completed by The Institute for Community Inclusion (UAP), in collaboration with Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Inc. Ninety-six percent of survey respondents indicated they are serving youth with both identified and suspected disabilities, and that these youth represent a substantial portion of agency caseloads (Temelini & Fesko, 1997).

This brief describes a parallel survey of state-level disability organizations that provide resources such as training and technical assistance, information and referral, and advocacy for individuals with disabilities. An important goal of this project is to identify existing capacity and promising practices of these organizations, and to use this information to improve the response to the growing needs of this population.


Three hundred and ninety six state-level disability organizations that provide support and resources to individuals with disabilities were surveyed, including the following: University Affiliated Programs, Developmental Disabilities Councils, Protection and Advocacy agencies, State LEA School-to-Work and Transition grant recipients, and Child/Adolescent Services Programs within State Departments of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. A total of 202 organizations responded to the survey.


1. Awareness/Concern

There is limited awareness of the relationship between disabilities and runaway and homeless youth.

2. Programs and Policy

2a. Twenty-six percent of respondents indicated that they have developed programs or policies to address this issue. Examples included:

Reasons given for implementing such programs included: concerns about the high number of runaway and hurt children in the community; concern about youth shuffled from placements or unstable living situations; local schools needing assistance in serving homeless youth; changes in laws and the award of a grant to serve the population.

2b. Although respondents identified this as a major need area, there has been limited participation in training concerning youth at risk for becoming runaway or homeless

2c. Despite a strong presence of individuals with disabilities in adolescent emergency service provider caseloads, relationships between these agencies and state-level disability organizations are limited


While the FYSB funded adolescent emergency service provider system is aware of the presence of youth with disabilities and is providing services to these youth, this issue has not been widely identified or recognized as an issue by survey repondents from state-level disability organizations. The nature of youth who are runaway or homeless and their life experiences have resulted in their not connecting with formal support systems. As a result this population has not been identified within disability services. To respond to the needs of these youth it will be incumbent on state-level disability organizations to reach out and support these youth in services where they are connected, such as adolescent emergency service providers. Without such ongoing collaboration, youth who are runaway or homeless will continue to be lost in the system as adolescent emergency service providers continue to struggle with how best to respond to their complex needs.

Some suggestions:

This survey examined state-level disability organizations that primarily support youth with developmental disabilities. There may be differences in this population and those served by adolescent emergency service providers. The FYSB adolescent emergency service providers are also seeing youth with emotional disabilities and learning disabilities and organizations that support youth with these disabilities will also need to become more aware of and active in this process.


Temelini, D. & Fesko, S.L. (1997, January) Research to Practice: Responding to the Needs of Youth with Disabilities Who are Runaway or Homeless. Boston: Institute for Community Inclusion (UAP), Children's Hospital


This brief reflects the contributions of staff at the Institute for Community Inclusion and Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Inc., in particular Cecilia Gandolfo and Kathy Manganaro, as well as the responding organizations.

For further information on this study, please contact:
Sheila Fesko
Institute for Community Inclusion/UMass Boston
100 Morrissey Boulevard, Boston, MA 02125
(617) 355-6506; (617) 355-6956 TTY;

This project is funded by grant #90DJ0111 from the Administration on Developmental Disabilities and the Family and Youth Services Bureau. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and no official endorsement should be inferred. This project is a collaborative effort of the Institute for Community Inclusion (UCEDD) and Bridge Over Troubled Waters.

ICI: promoting inclusion for people with disabilities