Each year, an estimated 4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness, according to the Voices of Youth Count from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. Of that number, 700,000 are minors unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. 

November is National Runaway Prevention Month (NRPM), a public awareness campaign created to “Shine a Light” on the experiences of runaway and homeless youth that often remain invisible. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is straining resources that assist these young people, who are often trying to escape problems at home such as neglect, poverty, abuse or mental health issues.

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“It’s usually something that triggers them to run and it’s our job to try to find out why,” said Rolando Zorrilla, Managing Assistant Executive Director of Youth Services at Community Access Unlimited in Elizabeth. CAU runs the Union County Youth ShelterRunaway and Homeless Youth Transitional Shelters, and a Basic Center program. The statewide nonprofit works to integrate people with disabilities and youth at risk into the general community through comprehensive supports.

“Outreach is harder since the pandemic,” Zorrilla said. “We used to get referrals through libraries, police departments and schools, but we are getting fewer referrals so our street outreach has picked up to try to reach those that are in need.” 

Youth living on the streets are at high risk for victimization and assault, mental illness, substance misuse, juvenile justice system involvement, and human trafficking, all of which increases the  likelihood of perpetuated homelessness in adult life.

Youth who enter the shelter go through a screening process to determine their needs, including whether reunification with family or guardians is a goal. They are then connected to the right resources, such a medical or mental health care, vocational training, or family counseling.

CAU offers a continuum of services and provides a second chance for young people to build healthy relationships and get started on a path to a self-sufficient adulthood. Youth programs include the Transitional Opportunities Program (TOP) which provides comprehensive residential services to youth ages 13 to 21, as well as the Union County Youth Shelter and federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Basic Center Program and federal Transitional Living Programs.  

Over 90 youth participate in college and employment preparation through the Pathways to Academic and Career Exploration to Success (PACES) program, which is part of TOP.

“My role is to help the youth accomplish goals that they set themselves, whether it be educational or employment,” said PACES coach Jahki Harrison. “It’s a youth-driven program and I’m looking to inspire them to do what they want with their own lives and give them realistic options.”

Harrison has only worked at CAU since the summer, but he is encouraged by the progress students are making in a challenging year.

“I’ve seen increases in their grades and shifts in personality,” Harrison said. “I do keep my eyes peeled on the students and the youth who might not talk much to help them get things done- even the smallest task- and having them commit to talking every week.”

A youth-driven approach extends to the advocacy opportunities at CAU, where youth are encouraged to discuss trends, ideas and issues affecting them. Eligible youth can become a Community Access Unlimited TOP member by referral through the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency, Children’s System of Care, referral by local schools, community organizations or local agencies, faith-based organizations, hospitals and medical offices, self-referral, or by anyone encountering a youth seeking shelter or assistance.