More and more young Americans, including many under 13, have left home or been kicked out as foreclosures, unemployment, and the rising cost of living make conditions in lower-income homes even tougher than usual. Experts and government studies estimate that 1.6 million juveniles leave home each year, though there are no reliable figures of how many return. "You're basically on the lam," says one 15-year-old who fled an abusive father and sleeps in a Wal-Mart restroom. "But you're a kid, so it's pretty hard to hide."
The New York Times spent a year interviewing more than 50 kids on their own in eight states, who describe sleeping in abandoned buildings, spending entire days on public transport, and eating cereal and instant noodles for weeks. From Chicago to Oregon, city governments and charities say they've been overwhelmed by increased demand from young runaways, who line up for free food but beg not to be sent home. "Several times a month we’re seeing kids being left by parents who say they can’t afford them anymore," one charity worker says.