“I’m leaving!” The words are ripped out of Ana’s* gut. Her eyes get wet and heavy. She gasps and her breath yanks the knot in her chest tighter, tighter. She grabs her phone, shoves her jacket into her backpack, lopes down the hall toward the door.
She almost hesitates, waiting for her mom to follow her out, but no footsteps answer her expectations. She glances behind and locks eyes with her stepdad — his eyes fierce, arms folded, legs spread wide. She swirls around and her momentum shoves the tears down her face. She jerks out of the house, realizing she left her keys. She thinks of grabbing them but instead she starts to run. Her tears become a kaleidoscope.
She wanders and wanders, minutes then hours pass, finally she slides her back down the wall of a laundromat that closed before she can remember.
She pulls out her phone.
Can I crash at someone’s house tonight?
Her fingers slug over the screen.
My friend lives alone, he might let you stay there...?
It wouldn’t be so bad. Just for one night. I can’t go back home. They don’t want me to come back.
Ana learns a night’s stay isn’t free. She wakes up angry and terrified, why didn’t her friend warn her? She doesn’t have her car so she can’t go to school. She’s desperate so she stays another night and then another. She rejects the drugs at first but the exhaustion and hopelessness wears her down until she agrees. A month later she hardly knows how she got in, but she absolutely doesn’t know how to get out.
According to the National Network for Youth, between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away every year — that is 1 in 7 young people between the ages of 10 and 18. If all of these people lived in one place it would be the 5th largest city in the United States. Life away from home is precarious for a young person. They are more likely to miss school due to a lack of transportation. Many become depressed, anxious, or even suicidal. They may engage in risky behaviors simply to find shelter: according to the National Runaway Safeline, 48% of youth who sold sex were looking for a place to stay and between 36-40% of youth on the street sold drugs.
Imagine if Ana had sought help — maybe she sees a flier posted on a bulletin board at the community center, she remembers the volunteer at her school fair, her mom reaches out before Ana ever leaves.
Ana comes to Second Story’s teen shelter and sleeps in a safe, warm bed. She meets “Jenna,” an experienced, caring counselor. She confides in Jenna about her loneliness and anxiety at home. The next day Ana goes to individual and group therapy and learns tools to cope and deal with her anxiety. She receives a mental health assessment and speaks with the counselor about other services in the community so that she can seek treatment. She attends family counseling sessions with her mom and stepdad and the three of them realize how they have been misunderstood and when they have communicated ineffectively. Ana goes home after three weeks, and while things aren’t perfect, they are better. She knows that if she ever feels hopeless and desperate again she can find help at the teen shelter — not with a stranger.
Each year an average of 140 young people like Ana come to Second Story’s teen shelter and about 85% of them return home to their families. At its core, Second Story for Teens in Crisis serves as a safer, healthier alternative to the streets or a friend’s house. “They know there are other options,” says Meghan Huebner, Vice President of Residential Services at Second Story. “Calling someone to talk, learning these coping skills, whatever it is, it broadens that world.”
Second Story for Teens in Crisis works to repair the situation at home as well, creating a place that a young person wouldn’t choose to run from. In the case that there is trauma or abuse at home Second Story contacts Child Protective Services and helps ease the transition to a safer place. With Second Story, the future becomes approachable with experienced help and targeted resources.
When a young person runs away they’re not only running from something, they’re running toward something else, whether healthy — acceptance, love, and guidance — or self-focused — freedom, friends, romantic relationships. The tragedy is when all they find is danger, abuse, hunger, and homelessness. At Second Story we seek to create safe spaces so that when a young person runs they find what they truly need to be the best and healthiest person they can be.
*Ana is a fictional character. This is not a true story from a client, rather a sample profile of a runaway young person from our teen shelter. Not all teen shelter residents are runaways.