The young woman was calling from a Greyhound station in Pennsylvania. She ran away from home to live with a friend and the friend’s boyfriend. She quickly realized the pair wanted her to work as a prostitute. When she refused, they dropped her off at the Greyhound station with no money.
At the station, she saw a sign for the National Runaway Safeline’s Home Free program, which provides free Greyhound tickets to youth ages 12 to 20 who have run away from home and want to reunite with their families. The crisis intervention specialist at the Safeline set up a conference call with the teen’s parents and arranged a free ticket home. The program, which since 1995 has reunited more than 14,000 young people with their families, also provides follow-up support for youth and families of youth who have returned home.
“We provide resources for the family to mend and become whole again,” said Maureen Blaha, executive director of the National Runaway Safeline.
The Home Free Program
The Home Free program is just one of the services provided by the National Runaway Safeline (1-800-RUNAWAY). The program was launched in 1971 and now makes 250,000 connections each year via the Safeline, online, and offline with youth, their parents, or community organizations. The Safeline is staffed 24/7 year round by 120 trained volunteers who serve as crisis intervention specialists under the supervision of the program’s staff. The program also provides live online chats between 4:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Central Time, a text service, an online bulletin board, and crisis email service. All of the services are anonymous and confidential.
The Safeline’s goal is to connect youth who are considering leaving home or who are on the streets with services or support. In 2013, 30% of the callers were runaways, 14% reported being homeless, and 5% had been thrown out of their homes, according to Blaha.
The volunteer crisis specialists come from many age groups, from youth to retiree, and many walks of life. They do not provide counseling, but are trained to listen to the youth and walk them through a five-step crisis intervention model.
“The first question is always, ‘Are you somewhere safe?’” Blaha said.
If the answer is no, the crisis intervention specialist tries to help direct the caller to immediate help. If the caller is safe, the specialist begins talking with the youth to identify the problems they are dealing with. Crisis intervention specialists have a database of more than 10,000 resources they can reference to help connect youth with local services, including legal services, counseling, drug treatment, general health services, and shelters. The crisis intervention specialists are trained to adhere to specific values that include being non-judgmental and non-directive. Rather than give advice, they empower callers to explore their options and offer support and resources.
“We don’t say, ‘You really need to go home now,’” Blaha said. “The callers really direct the conversation with our support and help. We elicit options from them.”
About half of the callers are experiencing a conflict at home that makes them want to flee, explained Blaha. For example, one young woman called and said she could not go home while her stepfather was there. During the call, the girl revealed she was being abused, and the crisis intervention specialist offered to facilitate a call to protective services. The girl agreed to call if the specialist stayed on the call with her. In another case, a 16-year-old Asian youth called because he had come out to his parents and they had not been accepting. The crisis intervention specialist offered to conduct a conference call with the young man’s parents to mediate. A translation service was used in an initial call with the young man’s father. A second call with the young man’s mother ended with her agreeing to try to be more supportive of his sexuality.
In addition to providing services to at-risk youth, the Safeline also offers information and resources for parents, schools, and community organizations. Parents are advised to report their child missing and are connected with groups that help find missing children. They may also leave a message for their child at the Safeline, and Safeline staff or volunteers can relay the message or mediate a conference call with the child and parents. The organization also provides a free 14-module runaway prevention curriculum to schools or community groups.
Blaha said that not much has changed about the types of crises the organization has helped youth deal with over the years. She noted that phone calls remain the best tool they have for crisis intervention, but that social media and other online tools are creating new options for reaching youth in crisis.
“It’s a lot about getting our message out on social media, so a young person knows where to turn,” she said.
This article was originally published to highlight the March 2015 theme of Youth Homelessness.
Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.