Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal

, Volume 36, Issue 2, pp 201–217 | Cite as

Understanding Organizations Serving Runaway and Homeless Youth: A Multi-setting, Multi-perspective Qualitative Exploration

  • Marya GwadzEmail author
  • Robert Freeman
  • Noelle R. Leonard
  • Alexandra Kutnick
  • Elizabeth Silverman
  • Amanda Ritchie
  • James Bolas
  • Charles M. Cleland
  • Lara Tabac
  • Margo Hirsch
  • Jamie Powlovich


Runaway and homeless youth (RHY) are dependent on the specialized settings that locate, engage, and serve them. Yet, little research has focused on the features of effective settings for RHY. The present qualitative study, grounded in the Youth Program Quality Assessment model, explored characteristics of higher quality organizations for RHY and gaps that remain from staff and RHY perspectives. A total of 29 diverse settings serving RHY in New York State were randomly selected for participation, and ranked on a quantitative program quality index. Within settings, we conducted in-depth semi-structured interviews with program administrators (N = 30) and other staff (N = 24). Focus group interviews were conducted with RHY (N = 13 focus groups; N = 84 RHY). Data were analyzed using a systematic content analysis approach that was both theory-driven and inductive, comparing higher to lower quality settings. We found all settings provided vital services and experienced challenges, but higher quality settings ameliorated challenges through (1) a youth-centered program philosophy equally understood by staff and RHY; (2) developmentally appropriate relationships between staff and RHY that promoted autonomy; (3) a focus on short- and long-term goals within anticipated crises; and (4) ongoing internal quality assessment procedures. Within lower quality settings we found (1) difficulties retaining effective staff and (2) a primary focus on basic services and managing crises, but less attention to emotional support, exacerbated by (3) funding and other challenges emerging from the larger environment. The present study extends the literature on organizations for RHY by identifying characteristics of higher quality settings, and challenges that remain.


Qualitative Runaway and homeless youth Youth Program Quality Assessment Positive Youth Development Programs Services 



This study was supported by the William T. Grant Foundation (#182738). We wish to acknowledge the support, guidance, and training received from the William T. Grant Foundation, including from Kim DuMont, PhD and Nancy Rivera-Torres. We wish to acknowledge the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research (CDUHR; P30 DA011041) for its support of the study, and in particular Aradhana Srinagesh, MPH, Amanda Applegate, Lucia Pattullo, Chris Hilliard, MPH, and Dawa Sherpa, BA for editorial assistance. We also thank Ravi Ramaswamy and Charles Smith, PhD at the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality for their guidance and training on understanding and assessing program quality, as well as Michelle Gambone, PhD at Youth Development Strategies, Inc.; and Nina Aledort, PhD at the Office of Children and Family Services. We further acknowledge the staff at the settings for runaway and homeless youth who engaged in the study and offered insights into their work, as well as the young people who participated.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marya Gwadz
    • 1
    Email author
  • Robert Freeman
    • 1
  • Noelle R. Leonard
    • 1
  • Alexandra Kutnick
    • 1
  • Elizabeth Silverman
    • 1
  • Amanda Ritchie
    • 1
  • James Bolas
    • 2
  • Charles M. Cleland
    • 1
  • Lara Tabac
    • 1
  • Margo Hirsch
    • 1
  • Jamie Powlovich
    • 2
  1. 1.Center for Drug Use and HIV ResearchNYU Meyers College of NursingNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Coalition for Homeless YouthNew YorkUSA

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