Study details lives of homeless youth

Children and Families

Ashley Washburn, May 2, 2016 | View original publication

Study details lives of homeless youth

A new study conducted on behalf of the federal government by University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologists offers a sobering portrait of the lives of homeless youth across the United States.

More than half of the youth who participated in the study became homeless after a parent or caregiver told them to leave. More than half had slept on the street. More than 60 percent had been victims of violence while homeless. And, the average age for first becoming homeless was 15.

“It sheds a lot of light on what causes youth homelessness,” Melissa Welch-Lazoritz, who served as project director for the study, said. “And it sheds light on the services homeless youth need. “

Launched more than three years ago, the $427,500 study involved 873 youth ages 14 to 21 in 11 cities: New York City, Boston, Washington, Chicago, San Diego, Seattle and Minneapolis; and Austin, Texas; Omaha; Tucson, Arizona; and Port St. Lucie, Florida. It was conducted on behalf of the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Les Whitbeck, a sociology professor at UNL who has since taken emeritus status, was approached to conduct the study because of his reputation as an expert on homelessness. He is the author of two books on homeless youth, “Nowhere to Grow: Homeless and Runaway Adolescents and Their Families” (1999), and “Mental Health and Emerging Adulthood Among Homeless Young People” (2009), as well as many journal articles and book chapters on the topic.

Other UNL team members were Devan Crawford, director of research analysis, and Dane Hautala, a doctoral student in sociology.

“An important step toward ending youth homelessness is getting better data and getting a better understanding about why young people became homeless, what happens to them when they are homeless and what services they need,” said Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families.

The study, which included survey questionnaires and focus groups of homeless youth, was conducted through agencies that had earned competitive federal grants to provide street outreach programs to homeless youth in each participating city. The agencies included Youth Emergency Services in Omaha, The Door in New York, and The Night Ministry in Chicago. Two interviewers and a part-time supervisor, trained by the UNL team, were hired at each location to conduct interviews and focus groups. Other participating agencies are listed in the report’s acknowledgements.

In an effort to draw out hidden homeless populations, the study used respondent-driven sampling, also called snowball sampling, to recruit 212 of the survey participants. Participants were offered $20 gift cards for participating in the survey and $10 gift cards for up to three peers they recruited for the survey. Welch-Lazoritz said the goal was to interview youth who might not ordinarily be found at homeless shelters or outreach agencies, perhaps because they are living temporarily with friends or sleeping in someone’s car.

Another 444 were chosen through convenience sampling, approached at shelters or other places where homeless people often congregate. In addition, a total of 217 youth participated in focus groups conducted at each site. Welch-Lazoritz said the focus groups were a strategy to learn about issues the researchers hadn’t considered.

“They were a way for homeless youth to tell us what they need without being prompted by a survey, to tell us in more detail, in their own words about the things we were missing,” she said.

Other key findings from the study:

  • About half had been in foster care;
  • Nearly 68 percent said they could not go home because their parents were unwilling to have them or because of family conflict;
  • Nearly 30 percent identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Nearly 7 percent identified as transgender;
  • Those with foster care history had been homeless more than 27 months on average, significantly longer than the average of 19.3 months for those who never had been in foster care;
  • 1.3 percent said they couldn’t go home because their family was homeless;
  • 24.1 percent said they had traded sex for money and 27.5 percent said they agreed to be sexual with someone so they could have a place to sleep. More than 20 percent had had a sexually transmitted infection and more than 46 percent of homeless girls and women had been pregnant;
  • Nearly 62 percent of participants reported symptoms associated with depression and nearly 80 percent reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress. More than 73 percent said they used alcohol; nearly 65 percent said they used marijuana and more than 37 percent reported using hard drugs.

However, participants also reported having personal strengths and strong relationships. Eighty-three percent said they had healthy self-esteem, and study participants reported they had people they could turn to, such as parents, relatives and friends. More than 45 percent said they had a romantic partner.

Welch-Lazoritz said the study emphasized the need for shelter and services tailored for youth. Among other things, youth told interviewers they needed a safe place to stay, a place to do their schoolwork or rest, and a place to do their laundry.

Children and Families Sociology