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Street youth: Who are they? What can be done to help them?

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Under the garish lights of Times Square, a man in a fur coat and high felt hat peers out from a darkened doorway keeping close watch on his employees - two teen-age prostitutes hustling customers from the theater crowd.

Not long ago, Linda (not her real name) was one of those desperate young women. She was 12 years old when she ran away from her foster home and ended up in a New York coffeehouse. Tired, hungry, and frightened, she was picked up by a pimp who offered her food and shelter.

For nearly a year she worked the streets as a prostitute and suffered physical abuse before seeking help from Covenant House, a private, nonprofit shelter here for runaway and homeless children. There, she received immediate care and was later placed in a group home. As a result of coordinated efforts between Covenant House and the police department, the pimp was picked up, prosecuted, and is now serving a jail term.

Despite her harrowing experience, Linda is one of the more fortunate runaways who are able to escape the street and find a safe living situation. According to conservative estimates, there are 700,000 to 1.5 million homeless and runaway youth in the United States. In New York City alone, police estimate there are from 10,000 to 20,000 runaways aged 15 or under on the streets on any given night. Increased numbers of homeless children are also turning up in other urban centers, particularly Sunbelt cities. Most of these runaways do not run far; shelters nationwide report 70 to 80 percent of their adolescents come from nearby areas.

The federal Runaway Youth Act helps finance 228 of the 400 service organizations nationwiHe. Funds provided under the act increased from $10.5 million in 1981 to $23.25 million in 1983. But professionals who serve homeless and runaway youth agree that government assistance alone will not solve this complex problem. Who are these children?

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