Runaways and Drug Abuse: 15 Ways to Reach Out and Make a Difference

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A recent study about homeless youth in America found an alarming statistic: about 80 percent who are aged 12­-21 use drugs or alcohol. Many of these are runaways who are unable or unwilling to return home, or who no longer have homes to return to. Drugs and alcohol become a way to self­-medicate, to help cope with the traumatic experiences and potential abuse they face each day.

These youths may feel they have no place to turn and no real way out. Worse yet, they may have become so submerged in their dangerous world that it seems like the best and only option, and they may have stopped even wanting to create a new life. Though loved ones may want to help them find the support they need to get away from drugs, off the streets, and back on their feet, it can be difficult to know where to start.

This guide is for anyone hoping to lend a helping hand to a runaway who has succumb to drug abuse. Whether you’re a parent, teacher, counselor, friend, or even just a concerned citizen, there are ways for you to make a difference. Remember that even if you aren’t immediately successful in getting someone the help they need, it never hurts to let them know you love them and care about their well­-being; sometimes you just have to know the best way to make that clear.

Phase One: Avoiding Assumptions

A lot of misconceptions can be made about young runaways. It can be difficult to know what circumstances brought them to where they are, especially if you’re approaching someone with no outside knowledge of their life or experiences. Keep an open mind and tread lightly. If you feel that you’ve run into a situation that’s out of your depth, consult a professional about how to proceed.

Never assume that leaving home was part of a well thought­out plan. Astudy by the National Runaway Safeline (NRS) found that 70 percent of teen runaways interviewed left home on a spur­of­the­moment basis. Even if your friend had spoken to you before about leaving home, it’s possible that he wasn’t prepared when the time came. Remember, more than 30 percent of runaways leave to get away from some form of abuse; sometimes the safest or easiest time to get out comes at an unexpected time. If drugs were already a part of his life, he may have even left on a whim in an effort to conceal his habit, avoid an argument about it, or simply get the privacy to indulge in it.

This all means that there may not have been time to pack a bag with clothes, grab extra money for food and shelter, or even figure out where to go. If it’s a loved one who’s run away, don’t hesitate to report that he’s missing. Many runaways engage in “survival sex,” or trading sex for food and a place to stay (sometimes even for drugs), within the first 48 hours of leaving home and it can be a slippery slope into the world of prostitution. If you know for a fact he’s leaving an abusive home, talk to a trusted parent, teacher, or counselor so he can get the help he needs without being forced to return to an unsafe home.

Don’t assume he has a home to return to. There can sometimes be the underlying attitude that because a runaway “chose” to leave home, he can make a similar choice to return. This is often not the case. In fact, the NRS also found that in addition to the many who fled abusive homes, nearly half of the homeless youth they spoke to were thrown out by family or caregivers. This is an especially likely scenario if the child in question was already coping with a drug addiction.

It’s important not to make this assumption because it may mean you’ll need a backup plan to help him find safe shelter. This might mean researching homeless shelters, food pantries, or soup kitchens in your area so he knows what options he has. Only offer a place to stay to someone you know and trust, and even then you should still exercise extreme caution when extending an invitation. He could be followed by dangerous people looking to break into your home or exploit your kindness, even if he’s unaware. If you are absolutely certain it will be a safe situation, take him in only after receiving explicit approval from your spouse, roommate, or parent. Never allow him to bring drugs into your home.

The best route is to find him a permanent place to stay. If he’s over 18, a local homeless shelter can provide him lodging as well as access to volunteers and social workers who can help him figure out where to go next. If he’s under 18 and doesn’t have a safe home to return to, talk to him about contacting any extended family who might be able to help. Talk to him about working with your local department of child and family services, but don’t pressure him into anything he isn’t ready for.

Don’t assume he can get out of his current situation alone. Even if he tells you he’s fine, even if he tells you he can walk away whenever he chooses, sometimes it’s not so simple. Some runaways are forced to survive by exchanging sex for food or selling drugs. It’s possible that he’s stuck in a web of forced labor making money for someone else who’s seen as “in charge,” and doesn’t feel like he has a safe way out. He may worry that one or both of you will be put in danger if he talks about it. If you worry this may be the case, talk to him in a safe setting and let him know that you want to help. National Safe Place is a great place to start for helping him find the proper resources.

Phase Two: Taking an Indirect Approach

Perhaps you haven’t been personally affected by youth homelessness and drug abuse, but you’ve noticed a lot of runaways in your community and want to reach out. Maybe you’re interested in joining or starting a group for homeless outreach in your area. If you’re planning on taking a more broad approach to your outreach, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Help create social stability. Research has shown that creating more opportunities for work, education, and medical care were the most important factors of getting someone back on their feet. More social connection and less isolation leads to healthier habits — if he’s still going to school or a job where people will notice if he appears to be under the influence of drugs, he’s probably not going to use them. Do what you can to get him involved in as many social settings as possible, even if it’s just a weekly youth group meeting at the local shelter. Having a social outlet is a healthy, positive way to cope with the stresses of homelessness and a valuable alternative to abusing drugs.

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Create opportunity for one-­on­-one treatment when possible. Homelessness and drug abuse tend to have a co­-morbidity effect on each other: the more he engages in high­risk behavior like drug use and unprotected sex, the less likely he is to find his way off the streets. He’s also at risk for contracting dangerous diseases like HIV, hepatitis, and other sexually transmitted diseases. One-­on-­one treatment allows him to actually identify and treat his personal drug use and any contributing mental health issues like depression and suicidal behaviors. Talk to a local youth counseling center or rehabilitation facility in your area about professional counselors donating time to reach out to homeless youth in the area; you can act as liaison between them, a peer counselor, or even just a pillar of support.

Compile care packages. If your schedule doesn’t give you the time to devote to extended outreach, consider putting together a care package that can foster a street youth’s survival or comfort. It can include items like:

  • Blankets
  • Non­-perishable, healthy snacks
  • Instant soup packets
  • Water and power drinks
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • First aid and self­-care kits with remedies for sour stomach, sore throat, cuts and wounds,
    etc., as well as instructions on how to know when you’re sick, how to treat yourself for
    minor illnesses and wounds, and when to seek medical care
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Rain jacket
  • Resource lists with information on where to find hot meals, food pantries, shelters, drug
    treatment facilities, and medical or dental care
  • Legal aid information

If you aren’t comfortable going right up to someone to give them a care package, leave it in a backpack or box somewhere they’re sure to find it. Don’t forget to leave them a note explaining what it is so they know they aren’t taking from someone else!

Phase Three: Taking a Direct Approach

If the runaway is someone close to your heart that you’re hoping to make a direct connection with, there are ways to go about it without making him feel bullied or pressured. Consult professionals as needed, but remember to respect his privacy. It’s one thing to confide in a family friend who has gone through a similar situation with her child, but you don’t want to promote his circumstances to the world and make him feel ashamed to come home. Never force a runaway to return to an abusive home; if you’ve only become aware of the abuse in his absence, first make sure that he’ll be returning to a safe home and seek legal counsel as necessary.

Consider the following before going to see him for the first time.

Establish a plan and goals. Depending on how long he’s been on his own and what kind of drugs he may be taking, it’s important to prepare yourself for what you might see. He may not look or sound like the person you know and love, so remind yourself that he’s still there. If you know what he’s taking, do some research to gather as much information as possible. If it’s your child, talk to the rest of your family to find out how everyone is feeling about it. You’re all going to need to lean on each other, so it’s important to remain a team. Keep in mind that it may be best to approach him one-­on­-one first rather than blindsiding him with a visit from the entire family, especially if he has younger siblings.

Make a goal for each visit.The first few may be to simply re­-establish contact and ensure he’s OK. Make your goals attainable but significant: one visit’s purpose might be to simply let him know that you love him and want him to be healthy and happy. Start small and work your way up to bigger hurdles.

Create the proper environment. It’s important to approach him in a place where he feels safe and comfortable. Find the happy medium between his comfort zone and yours; if he isn’t comfortable returning home even for a visit, ask to meet in a public park instead. Try to let him choose a time that works for him — don’t make the assumption that he can work around your schedule.

Don’t surprise him with visitors he isn’t expecting. It’s important that he feels that you are open and safe to approach, so don’t blindside him. If you feel it would be helpful, talk to him about bringing along a mediator or drug counselor to one of your visits. If he isn’t comfortable, put the idea on hold until he’s ready.

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If possible, talk to him when he’s sober and lucid. Not only will he be more coherent, he’ll likely be more receptive to conversation. Certain drugs can cause emotions to run wild and you want to avoid a fight. Speaking to him after he’s been using could also cause him to have a foggy mind and potentially forget the conversation even took place. Let him know all of this prior to sitting down and talking; it’s not that you’re passing judgment, it’s that you want the conversation to be as productive as possible.

Show him that you’re happy to see him. Although you may be upset that he left and about the decisions he’s made, what he should hear from you before anything is that you’re happy to see him and you love him. Tell him that you’re glad he’s OK and that he’s safe. Your first words should be calm — he may be fearing a confrontation, so don’t create one. Tell him that together you can resolve any problems, even addiction. Don’t be too quick to rush into the issues right away, though. Emotions will likely be running too high to have a productive conversation about his addiction, so start light and work your way up to it.

Be calm but direct. When it comes time to discuss his battle with addiction, be gentle but don’t beat around the bush. The issue is too serious for subtlety, but letting too much emotion spill in will be counter­-productive. If you approach the subject with panic, anger, aggression, or accusations, he likely won’t feel safe to open up to you about it. Have a calm, two­-way conversation about his drug abuse and keep your cool no matter what he confides. If you react too harshly, he may shut down completely. Approach him from a place of understanding and genuine concern for his well­-being.

Approach him free of judgment. You may have a lot of negative opinions about the choices he’s making, but expressing them isn’t going to do anyone any good. Leave your judgments at home and instead seek to understand. Ask him what led him to use in the first place; there could be something going on that you don’t know about or fully comprehend. If he doesn’t feel comfortable opening up, acknowledge the things that likely cause him stress and anxiety: school, problems with friends, the pressure to make you proud. Talk to him about your experience with these kinds of problems but don’t belittle his experience — you want to show him that you understand, not that you think his reaction was wrong. Let him talk about his emotions freely, even if you disagree. Talk about yours too, even how his feelings make you feel. Avoid being accusatory and try to see things from his perspective. There could be much you didn’t realize was going on, and if you immediately shut him down you may never be able to reach him.

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If he’s still using, talk to him about stopping before he can come home. Not only do you want him to come home to a safe environment, it’s important to ensure one for the rest of your family. Drugs simply do not fit into that equation. Tell him that you all love him very much, but there will be rules to follow in order to keep everyone safe and healthy. Let him know you’ll do what it takes to support him in his recovery and that he won’t face it alone. He may not be willing to at first, but give him time to think it over. If he still resists, let him know that the offer stands and whenever he’s ready, he can change his mind.

Help him find treatment. If he agrees to come home with you or at least go to treatment, there are a few things to keep in mind. He should be assessed by a professional to figure out how to best address both his addiction and any underlying mental health issues at play. His drug counselor can help him find the right course of treatment, but remember that the best treatment is one close to home and allowing maximum family involvement. Wilderness and boot camp programs usually aren’t a strong route — they’re unregulated at the federal level and the American Society of Addiction Medicine doesn’t regard it as a proper level of care. It’s better for him to be treated while living at home with his family supporting him.

The sad truth is that drug abuse in the runaway community is a problem that needs to be further studied and addressed. Whatever you can do to make a difference in a runaway’s life, whether it’s dropping off a care package, starting an outreach group, or speaking to him on a one-­on­-one basis about making changes could make all the difference.