One in two runaways surveyed for the report by the charities Centrepoint and NSPCC said they ran away because of family fights and violence in the home, and one in five said physical abuse had contributed to their flight.
But the four refuges around the country that care for under-16s are under threat unless central and local government co-operate with charities over funding, the chief executive of Centrepoint warned.
The study, monitored 200 young people aged 12 to 16 who used the Centrepoint Refuge in London between November 1993 and March 1995.
Most young runaways had experienced unsettled and disrupted family life and almost half had spent some time in care. Nearly six out of ten were girls and nearly a quarter were from ethnic minorities. While those who fled from the parental home tended to do so because of conflicts and arguments, bullying and inappropriate placements drove young people in care to abscond. Twice as many young people had run away from children's homes as from foster care.
Roger Thompson, the NSPCC's director of children's services, said: "We are seeing desperate children and young people running away from environments of chronic conflict abuse or bullying. But by running away these vulnerable children are placing themselves at great risk of further harm. It is often a case of 'out of the frying pan, into the fire'."
Nearly a quarter of under-16s interviewed slept rough while on the run. Many had experienced threats and violence when on the streets and some had become involved in petty crime or prostitution. Despite these dangers most of the young people felt that these risks were preferable to remaining at home.
"Centrepoint sees over 2,000 homeless young people every year," said Victor Adebowale, the charity's chief executive.
"Four in ten of those young people on our streets today ran away from home or care before they were 16. There are hundreds of very young people out there every day with no one to turn to for help and support. I believe unless there is a sea-change in the way we listen to young people and respond to them with the right support we are almost condemning them to a life on the street."
He called on the Government to take a more active role in looking after such children.
9 Nowhere To Hide - Giving Young Runaways a Voice is available from Centrepoint, Bewlay House, 2 Swallow Place, London W1R 7AA; pounds 6.50.Reuse content