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Community Access Unlimited Gives Runaway Teenagers More Than Shelter

 They leave home because in their minds staying is worse than going, even though they are only teenagers. Half of them leave with their parents aware of their departure. Half have dropped out of school or been expelled or suspended. More than one in 10 will spend at least one night sleeping – or trying to sleep – in a park, on the street, under a bridge or overhang or on a rooftop. Nearly one third have tried or will try to take their own lives.

Those numbers from the National Runaway Safeline create the demographics of teenage runaways. Yet they do not tell the whole story.

“Imagine the trauma a young boy or girl is experiencing that is so bad they feel being alone on the street is a better option. Then think of their fear that first night as darkness comes,” said Julia Leftwich, director of youth services at Community Access Unlimited (CAU), which operates the Union County Youth Shelter, the only shelter for runaway teenagers in the county.

November is National Runaway Prevention Month. According to the National Runaway Safeline, the goal of the month-long effort is to raise awareness about the issues that runaways and homeless youth face and to educate the public about solutions for preventing youth from running away from home.

Runaways who come to the Union County Youth Shelter are fortunate in that the shelter is operated by an agency that has been serving at-risk youth for decades.

CAU provides support programs and services to people with disabilities and youth served under the Department of Children and Families (DCF). The agency has been operating the shelter for Union County since 2006 and can accommodate up to four young people at a time.

“When a teenager has nowhere else to go our first priority is to provide them a safe place of shelter,” Leftwich said. “We provide them with a meal, offer them a shower and give them clothing.”

The youth also receive medical treatment, if needed, and education, either in their home school or from a state-certified teacher at the shelter. Working-age teenagers can get job training and all those staying at the shelter receive life-skills training, such as cooking, cleaning and personal budgeting.

“Meanwhile we try to find out what went wrong and why they are here,” Leftwich said. “We notify their parents their child is there and try to get them in within the first 48 hours. We work with them to come up with a plan to unify with the child.”

Runaways who claim abuse or neglect – a third of runaways report sexual abuse at home, according to Safeline – are referred to the DCF.

Runaways are able to stay at the shelter for 21 days, although CAU often extends that.

“We want to make sure we are putting the youth in a good placement,” Leftwich said. “We want to make sure the family will welcome the child back and there will be a successful unification.”

If a return home is not the best option, runaway teenagers who come to the Union County Youth Shelter have an advantage available to few other youths in similar circumstances.

“It’s good they’re at a youth shelter operated by Community Access because we have a continuum of care here,” said Leftwich.

That continuum of care comprises housing, including group homes and supervised transitional living apartments; life skills training, after-school and recreation programs; education, vocational training and employment assistance; and advocacy.

“So if they don’t go home they can continue on through CAU support and development,” Leftwich said. “That’s the CAU Advantage and the benefit of Community Access running the shelter. We don’t have to outsource to other agencies because our agency already provides everything these kids need.”

To learn more about Community Access Unlimited and the Union County Youth Shelter, visit To learn more about National Runaway Prevention Month, visit

About CAU

Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 34th anniversary, supports people with special needs in achieving real lives in the community.  CAU provides support and gives a voice to adults and youth who traditionally have little support and no voice in society.  CAU helps people with housing, life skills, employment, money management, socialization and civic activities.  CAU also supports opportunities for advocacy through training in assertiveness, decision-making and civil rights.  CAU serves more than 5,000 individuals each year.  For more information about CAU and its services, contact us by phone at 908.354.3040, online at or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.

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