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Runaway Switchboard provides youth with resources free of judgment

 StreetWise (USA) 25 April 2019

The National Runaway Switchboard is a helpline for young people that might be facing homelessness, many times because they have ran away from home. Based in Chicago, the helpline gets calls from all over the USA. (879 Words) - By Megan Millard


A young man calls 1-800 RUNAWAY because he does not get along with his mom's new boyfriend. He wants to know if there are any places in his area that would provide him with a place to stay for a few months until he goes off to college.

This young man represents just one of the approximately 300 calls every day received by the National Runaway Switchboard (NRS). Located in Chicago, the organization fields calls from all over the United States.

One of the National Runaway Switchboard's volunteers searches for a resource to give the young man as he waits on the other line. While the volunteer searches for facilities in the requested area, often volunteers have no indication of where in the United States callers are located.

  "We do not have caller I.D., we don't know [where they are]," said Maureen Blaha, executive director of the NRS.

In fact, the purpose of the NRS is to provide youth with assistance without judgment. "This is a safe place to call," Blaha said.           

An overwhelming need

While it may seem like a problem that doesn't hold much weight, the numbers are overwhelming. According to Blaha and the NRS web site,, between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away each year.

  "It's really an overwhelming number," Blaha said. "I think of it as a silent crisis."

Blaha said that the statistics highlight a problem that exists throughout the country. While kidnappings and abductions may seem like a major issue, Blaha said that the number is miniscule compared to the number of youth who run away.

According to Blaha, often people are under the impression that kids who run away are troubled, being labeled as "bad kids." She said most often the youth are running away from bad situations.


Unstable homes a factor

Many of the calls fielded by the NRS have to do with family dynamics, much like the situation of the young man mentioned above. There may be a divorce in the family or youth struggling to get along with stepparents. Additionally, calls may be tied to a youth feeling as though they have disappointed a parent. In cases with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) youth, there are some parents who do not accept the sexual orientation of the child. 

Another factor to be considered is whether or not the youth was thrown out of the home or left willingly. NRS 2010 statistics collected for a Why They Run report showed that almost half (48 percent) of youth described being kicked out of their home, while 30 percent said they ran away. The remaining 22 percent described their situation as being a combination of both.

Blaha said that certain situations could lead a youth to believe they could make it on their own, and then realize it is not easy.

"It's very unsafe on the streets," she said.

While NRS statistics reported that the most popular means of making money is panhandling, youth also reported getting a job or receiving money from a family member. The more dangerous means reported were youth becoming involved in the sex industry or selling drugs.

While NRS has found in the past that girls were more likely to call the switchboard than boys, the gap is slowly closing. Blaha believes that while boys may be less likely to reach out for help, the gap could be closing due to rapper Ludacris teaming up with the NRS to promote awareness of runaways in 2006, providing a male spokesman for the problem.

NRS volunteers discuss options for youth but also take calls from adults. A situation that NRS has found themselves dealing with in the past is when a youth calls and asks the NRS volunteer to inform her family member he or she is alright. Parents can sometimes be desperate in obtaining information that the NRS often does not have, such as the whereabouts of their child.

While Blaha said the NRS tries to reunite families when possible, it does not force such meetings. It only offers resources for youth in crisis and sometimes serves as a messenger between the two. For example, the youth can call and leave a message for a parent, should the parent choose to call. A parent can also leave a message for a youth if a youth decides to call.



The NRS has 150 volunteers of many ages and all "walks of life." They typically work a few hours per week and go through 40 hours of training beforehand. The NRS is always accepting new volunteers and there are classes every month of the year with the exception of April and December. Anyone interested in volunteering can call 773-289-1726.

1-800-RUNAWAY is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. On March 23, the NRS launched its Live Chat service, which serves to provide assistance to youth via the web.

"Live Chat is a new service that is another option for youth and teens in crisis to get in touch with NRS online and to resources that will improve their situation," Blaha said.

The NRS hopes they can provide an outlet for youth to get the assistance they need to stay safe and happy.

"I think all of us want our kids safe," Blaha said.   

This article is part of a special report about homeless teens in Chicago
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