SAN JOSE -- The flight of 15-year-old Yahya Abdi from San Jose to Maui in a jetliner's wheel well has captivated minds worldwide, in part because of its rarity. He is one of just 25 people known to have survived such a feat.

But through a different lens, he's just one of 2.8 million.

That's one estimate for the number of juveniles who will run away from home in the United States this year, according to the National Runaway Safeline, a Chicago-based nonprofit that connects runaway youth to services and, when possible, gets them on a bus back home.

"The means of his travel are unique, but running away is not," said Executive Director Maureen Blaha, referring to Yahya. "This case really helps shine a light on the runaway crisis in this country."

Yahya Abdi, 15, of Santa Clara
Yahya Abdi, 15, of Santa Clara (Courtesy Mukhtar Guled)

Addressing the problem is full of challenges, not least of which is getting a handle on its size. The NRS's annual estimate of runaways under the age of 18 ranges between 1.6 million and 2.8 million. And according to one study, nine of 10 of them will travel across state lines, though few will get as far away from home as Yahya did.

There is no handy way of tallying runaways because they're generally difficult to track. Running away is not a crime, but what the legal system calls a "status offense," akin to truancy or breaking curfew.

Usually when a child runs away and the family files a missing-persons report, police or social service agencies don't respond unless there are existing abuse allegations or suspicious circumstances.

The federal government has pushed counties to count homeless youth and while there is some overlap with the runaway population, the two groups are far from synonymous.

"Part of the problem in terms of scope is that not all parents where an older child runs away reports it," said Stanley Lee, program manager for the Social Services Agency in Santa Clara County. "There's an inconsistency of reporting, if it's frequent."

That's what happened with Yahya, whose parents didn't report him missing before he turned up in Maui.

In Santa Clara County, where Yahya lives, the nonprofit Bill Wilson Center houses, provides services for or performs outreach to at least 2,500 runaways and homeless youth each year, but even that is believed to be only a modest portion of the number of runaways living in the area.

CEO Sparky Harlan said she was astounded by Yahya's tale of survival, but in his story she saw a teen whose life resembles the teens she sees coming through the Wilson Center's doors every week.

"I feel for that kid. I want him in here," Harlan said. "If he comes here, he can see a lot of kids just like him. Sometimes what they need is knowing they're not the only ones going through this and feel connected."

Harlan, who has been working with troubled youth in the Bay Area for more than 40 years, said the dangers to runaway teens have ramped up in recent years, particularly with the proliferation of human trafficking in the Bay Area. In January, a youth mentor working for Santa Clara County was arrested and charged with coercing runaways into prostitution in downtown San Jose.

"It doesn't take long for someone without street smarts to get in trouble without a place to stay," Harlan said.

Blaha said Yahya's case is fairly typical in that it appears to stem from discord with his family and home life. A relative told this newspaper the Santa Clara teen was feeling alienated from his father and stepfamily, with whom he emigrated to the United States four years ago.

Yahya also struggled with the revelation that his mother, whom he thought had died in a rocket attack in Mogadishu, Somalia, was actually alive and trying to reconnect, the mother said in a telephone interview with reporters from a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

So between late Saturday and early Sunday, the boy walked the three miles from his home to Mineta-San Jose International Airport, hopped a perimeter fence and climbed into the left rear wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 767 at the start of the A terminal.

Five-and-a-half hours later, the plane touched down in Maui and he popped out onto the tarmac, apparently unfazed by the lack of oxygen and the potentially minus-85 degree temperatures that authorities say more than likely should have killed him.

Blaha said NRS research has found that slightly more than 90 percent of juveniles who run away in the United States cross state lines. Some even get within striking distance of Yahya's 2,350-mile trip. Blaha said one teen her organization helped made a 2,000-mile journey from Riverside to Chicago.

"Adolescents are going to struggle. Whether it's conflict in the house, substance abuse issues, either by the parent or child, young people don't always have coping mechanisms to deal with that," Blaha said. "We have to create a culture where we say, 'We're going to talk about it and we're going to work on it together.'"

But the reason organizations like hers and the Bill Wilson Center exist is because that kind of communication isn't always practical or possible. Harlan encourages parents and teens to turn to these resources so that if even conflict might lead to a child leaving home, it will be to somewhere safe.

"If you can't get along and there is no safe place, come to us," she said.

For those who have already run away, the National Runaway Safeline has a partnership with Greyhound bus lines that provide free tickets home. Blaha said in the past three years, 1,377 such tickets have been issued to reunite teens with their families.

But even in cases when they don't want to come home, folks like Blaha and Harlan want to hear from them.

"Young people want to reach out to someone they think they can trust, a neutral person," Harlan said. "We'll talk to them about anything that's going on. We'll talk to them about any issue."

Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.

U.S. RUNAWAY FIGURES
  • Between 1.6 million and 2.8 million youth under 18 are estimated to run away from home each year in the United States
  • 39 percent of runaways who called the National Runaway Safeline had history of leaving home
  • As many as 47 percent of runaways cite family dynamics as their motivation
  • 1,377 runaways have gotten free bus rides home over the past three years through a partnership between NRS and Greyhound bus lines
  • 90 percent of runaways who used the bus program had crossed state lines
    Sources: National Runaway Safeline call data, third-party research

    RUNAWAY RESOURCES
    The following agencies can be reached 24 hours a day and confidentiality is assured:
  • National Runaway Safeline: 1-800-RUNAWAY or 1800runaway.org; offers connection to local counseling, shelter and other services, and can arrange for free bus rides home
  • Bill Wilson Center in Santa Clara; 408-243-0222 or billwilsoncenter.org; counseling, shelter and other services, provides downtown San Jose drop-in center
  • Safe Place: Yellow diamond placards on buses, firehouses, libraries, schools and other public facilities designate a place where runaways or homeless youth can ask for help, including shelter