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Responding to the Needs of Youth with Disabilities Who Are Runaway or Homeless

Research to Practice 7


Originally published: 2/1997

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There exists a growing awareness regarding the needs of youth with disabilities who are runaways, homeless, or at risk for running away. In order to begin to address the unique learning and support needs of these youth and to initiate a comprehensive and coordinated response, the Institute for Community Inclusion (UAP), in collaboration with Bridge Over Troubled Waters conducted a survey of Family and Youth Service Bureau (FYSB) agencies in fifty states. The survey addressed issues such as identification of existing service capacity, barriers to service delivery, perceived needs of the target population, strategies for responding to the need, and future directions.


A total of 242 agencies responded to the national survey, which requested information about services provided in 1995. The vast majority described their agency as providing Basic Center Program services such as shelter, outreach and crisis intervention. Of these agencies, 45% provide Basic Center Services only, while 39% provide a combination of Basic Center, Drug Abuse Prevention and Transitional Living services. Almost half of the agencies provided services to a minimum of 500 individuals during the year, mostly within the 11-18 year age range. A majority of the agencies operated in an urban area, while less than one third provided services in suburban and rural areas. Fifty agencies stated that their primary area was a combination of the three.


All of the findings reported below are based on agency experiences with youth in the 16-21 year old age range. The survey focused in part on issues regarding youth who had an identified disability, either through self-report or documentation in school or medical records. Agencies were given disability definitions obtained from fact sheets provided by the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY). Ninety-four percent of the agencies reported having served youth with an identified disability; approximately one quarter of the total number of youth served were youth with an identified disability.

Percentage of organizations which provide services to youth with an identified disability

Disability category %
Emotional disability 89
Learning disability 88
Physical disability 43
Mental Retardation 36
Sensory Impairment 22

Certain agencies were able to provide the actual number of youth served within each disability category. Youth with learning disabilities and emotional disabilities received services much more frequently than youth with other disabilities. Based on the data profile, an average agency served 25 youth with a learning disability, 25 youth with an emotional disability, 5 with mental retardation, 3 with a physical disability and 2 with a sensory impairment.

The second focus of the survey was to determine the incidence of and response to youth who did not have an identified or documented disability, but for whom staff may have suspected an underlying learning, emotional or other developmental problem. It has been a concern that these youth may require specialized support services beyond those which agencies would typically provide. One goal was to learn how to make programs more responsive to these youth, who might be at risk of dropping out of the service delivery system. Ninety-three percent of the agencies surveyed provided services for youth with a supected disability, with a majority serving at least 30 youth in this category. Agency staff reported a variety of behavioral indicators to identify individuals with possible underlying disabilities. Most agencies stated that youth who have difficulties with interpersonal relationships was one indicator. Other indicators included noticing difficulty following through on tasks, problems with multi-step instructions, mood swings, and inclinations towards aggressive behavior and hyperactivity.

Obstacles Encountered

Respondents cited several barriers or obstacles encountered in providing services to youth with identified disabilities. A majority of the agency repondents cited the concern that their staff did not have the skills or expertise to work with these youth. Over half of the agencies also responded that their staff do not have sufficient time to provide quality services to youth with disabilities, while others stated that their program could not respond to the individual needs of youth. Funding issues with respect to staffing and support services along with capacity concerns such as overcrowding and physical plant limitations were also raised.

Strategies Utilized

Certain strategies were employed when working with youth with identified or suspected disabilities. The most prevalent strategy utilized was in altering expectations to task assignment to meet the youth's individual needs. Most of the agencies made referrals to other agencies for additional services, including public and private mental health centers, Mental Retardation and Vocational Rehabilitation agencies, long term treatment facilities and to various school resources.


Agencies were asked if they had altered any services or approaches to services to address the needs of youth. Two-thirds of the agencies stated that they had, with the majority of modifications occuring through consultation with other agencies and changes in the types of services provided. Many agencies cited the importance of accomodating to individual needs. Examples of accomodations included individualizing treatment and service plans, employing shorter sessions and breaking down tasks into smaller steps. Several agencies also modified their intake and assessment process. These revisions included making the process more flexible, changing intake forms to make them more understandable for youth and then carefully reviewing the main ideas, and closely checking histories with other agencies and schools. Organizational modifications were made in the areas of changing staff patterns, increasing inservice training, and offering smaller sessions for group meeting with youth. Finally, agencies were asked to describe the impact on the staff of working with individuals with identified or suspected disabilities. The most frequent response was that staff experienced increased emotional and physical demands in attending to the more complex needs of these youth. The results ranged from elevated stress to burnout, high turnover and lowered morale. On the positive side, agencies reported increased staff awareness and understanding, increased knowledge about disability issues, and that staff find great rewards in succeeding with these youth.


This national survey makes it apparent that the vast majority of FYSB agencies are serving youth with both identified and suspected disabilities. While agencies are employing diverse strategies along with altering services in responding to support needs, over two thirds replied that there were youth who were not effectively served because of complex learning and/or emotional needs. Below are a list of recommendations that might be employed to better respond to the needs of youth with disabilities who are runaways, homeless, or at risk for running away.

1. Program Modifications

2. Youth-focused Strategies

3. Outside Resources

This project is fundedby 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 project of the Institute for Community Inclusion (UCEDD) and Bridge Over Troubled Waters. For further information on this study, please contact: Sheila Fesko, Institute for Community Inclusion, 100 Morrissey Boulevard, Boston, MA 02125 (617) 287-4300; (617) 287-4350 TTY; email: sheila.fesko@umb.edu

ICI: promoting inclusion for people with disabilities