Szara: Runaway, homeless youth in McHenry County

“Get out of my house!”

As a parent, these often are the last-ditch words shouted in anger at your teenager during an argument. With the slam of a front door, your child is gone, and you might not know where he’ll sleep tonight. This is a scary reality for many families in our community, but letting the relationship get to this point isn’t your only option. We’re here to help.

Each year, more than 500 runaways and homeless youth are reported to police departments across McHenry County. This shocking number is made up of kids refusing to go home and teenagers locked out by parents or guardians. 

At Pioneer Center for Human Services’ Runaway and Homeless Youth Program, we have a system designed to provide 24-hour crisis intervention response; temporary, safe and appropriate shelter; and family reunification counseling services designed to reunite the youth with their family and encourage the resolution of intra family problems.

This systematic approach to family counseling explores the family structure and the roles of family members, working with them to restructure family relationships to achieve more stable living conditions for youth and understanding the experiences (positive and negative) that lead to a negative perception of family relationships.

Our program counselors work closely with family members to identify the problems they are struggling with and provide resources to help work toward reunification. The program is entirely confidential and free.

One of the main goals we’ve set at the Runaway and Homeless Youth Program is to help youth become independent, self-confident individuals capable of making good life choices. These situations are extremely difficult, and we want the individuals who are either at risk or are going through this hardship to be able to learn from others’ experiences, which will help them make better decisions.

We’ve been providing services to runaways and the homeless in McHenry County for over 25 years. In addition to our family services, this program conducts community outreach activities to assure early identification of runaway and homeless youth. We want to stop the issue before it becomes an issue.

And we want the people we’re helping to feel at home, literally. At Pioneer Center, we believe in offering community-based services that allow youth to remain at home with their families in their communities whenever it is safe and possible to do so. This program allows the agency to serve children before they are swept into the juvenile justice or child welfare systems. But this isn’t always the case. In order to accomplish this, early identification of at-risk youth is critical. Immediate intervention in youth problems assures that these problems will be resolved, and that runaway incidences will be avoided and not repeated.

If you are concerned about your child’s unsafe behaviors, we’re here to help. Call Pioneer Center at 815-338-7360. After hours, help is available through the McHenry County Crisis Hotline at 800-892-8900. To learn more about Pioneer Center programs, visit

If you are a teenager who has run away or is thinking of running away from home, call us. We understand what a difficult situation it can be, and we know we can help you. Our program can provide emergency shelter, meals, transportation, referrals for job placement or school placement and counseling centered on reunification with your family.

The McHenry County Continuum of Care to End Homelessness meets every second Thursday at 9 a.m. at the McHenry County Government Center Annex building in Woodstock to discuss issues surrounding homelessness.

• Nick Szara is the prevention manager at Pioneer Center for Human Services.

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