Helping Homeless Teens Help Themselves

By most accounts, there are some 200,000 teenagers sleeping on the streets in America every night. It's a problem we're never going to be able to solve entirely, especially not with another government program.

There is a better option, but it's not going to be presented from too many circles. We need to let more children work. The child labor laws now on the books only make the problem worse. They need to be changed.

I should know. I was one of those kids once.

When I was 16, I ran away because I believed then (and now) that living on the street was safer than staying at home. I survived, and eventually thrived, because someone was willing to break the law.

Homelessness is particularly frightening for women. Without the traditional protections of family and a job, females especially under-aged girls become vulnerable to assault and rape. And they are more likely to turn to prostitution or crime to eke out an existence.

I was lucky. It was legal for me to work, and I did so as a file clerk in an appliance store. But the owner broke labor laws by allowing me to stay on the premises at night. In return, I put in unpaid overtime. Because he took a chance on me, I never had to consider prostitution, begging, selling drugs, or the other dead-ends that many homeless teens confront. If I had been 15, I am sure he would have never taken the risk.

Why didn't I go to a government agency for help? It isn't that easy. For most kids, it's hard to find a place willing to open its doors for more than a day or two. Even then, the only goal of the "authorities" is to get the kid home. Moreover, when teens end up alone on the street, it is usually from one of two causes: They are fleeing an abusive home or they are "throw-aways" — that is, children whose parents have left them or who have thrown them out, often for drug use or pregnancy. In other words, those in control have betrayed or abandoned them. Many of them refuse to turn over their lives to yet another authority.

The issue of homelessness in the young is receiving more attention because of several recent studies finding their numbers on the rise. A recent study in Boston found that, since 1990, for example, the number of homeless children in that city has tripled.

The situation confronting homeless teens is worse today than when I ran away. It was the dead of winter when I left, and for the first nights I slept on the pew of a church whose doors were always open. Today, those doors would probably be locked. I was at one point "discovered," which was my greatest fear, but the person simply put a blanket over me and left without waking me up. Today, society is numbed to homelessness; we are overwhelmed with compassion fatigue and acts of gratuitous kindness seem to be fewer. We avert our eyes from the hand-painted signs and ignore the rattling cups.

Many of the solutions offered to the problem of runaways will never work. Even if there were "enough" funding from already exhausted taxpayers, such notoriously inefficient and soul-numbing government programs as welfare only create dependency.

Those who will not trust authority or who have been further abused by government agencies will stay on the streets. What they need is to have the same chance I did. They deserve the right to work so they can take care of themselves without begging or turning to crime.

Child labor laws were intended as a way to prevent the exploitation of children in sweatshops and factories; they weren't designed to prohibit teenagers from working in a warm fast-food restaurant. They were never meant to force a 15-year-old into prostitution or drug dealing in order to be able to pay for a safe and legal place to sleep.

In many states, 14 is the minimum legal age for some non-agricultural jobs. But the law usually restricts the conditions under which they can work so tightly — e.g. the number of hours to be worked — that it is difficult for them to make a living. Or, at least, to do so in a legal manner.

Advocating that under-aged teenagers be allowed to work is bound to elicit an outraged backlash. No one wants to see children forced to support themselves. But many teens are already are on their own, and working at a menial, low-paid job may well be the best way a teen can get off the street and get a new life.

McElroy is the editor of She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (CATO 1982, Holmes & Meier 1992) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada, and can be reached at