Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Homeless Youth in the United States: Recent Research Findings and Intervention Approaches. Conclusion


Much has been learned since Robertson and Toro reviewed the literature on homeless youth for the 1998 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Yet many important questions remain unanswered. Several areas, in particular, could be the focus of future research.

  1. Many risk factors associated with youth homelessness have been identified. Examples include family conflict, aging out of foster care, and identifying as GLBT. What is not well understood is how these factors operate. That is, what are the pathways leading to homelessness among youth with these risk factors? Future research needs to explore these pathways and consider how other factors (e.g., access to and quality of services received during childhood or early adolescence, growing up in a family that experienced homelessness) either aggravate or mitigate those risks.
  2. Although many interventions have been developed to address the diverse needs of homeless youth, the vast majority have not been evaluated. As a result, we know relatively little about what works. Closing this gap will require methodologically sound studies that include control (or at least comparison) groups in experimental (or at least quasi-experimental) research designs.
  3. Researchers should examine whether certain types of interventions are more effective with some homeless youth than others (e.g., runaway youth vs. throwaway youth vs. systems youth; street youth vs. shelter youth; rural youth vs. urban youth; youth homeless with their families vs. youth homeless on their own). Groups that are likely to have unique needs and hence for whom unique interventions may be merited include LGBT youth and youth who are pregnant or parenting.
  4. Broadly speaking, there are two types of prevention strategies: universal approaches that seek to promote positive youth development, and more targeted approaches that focus on youth thought to be at greatest risk. Research is needed on both types of strategies to determine whether both can prevent homelessness and other negative outcomes among youth.
  5. Because so many homeless youth cite family conflict as the reason for their homelessness, more attention should be paid to prevention and intervention strategies that focus on the family. Strategies might involve improving communication, developing conflict resolution skills, and increasing understanding of adolescent development. It is important for social workers and others assisting homeless youth and those at risk for homelessness (such as youth aging out of foster care) to help these youth connect with family members who might assist them in the future (often after the workers end their assistance). It is also important that "family" be broadly defined to include not only biological relatives but also others (e.g., fictive kin, close friends) who youth regard as part of their family.
  6. Although interventions may benefit from tapping into familial resources, reunification may not be a good option for certain homeless youth. More research is needed to determine the individual and environmental circumstances that argue for and against familial reunification. Interventions should be developed using this information.
  7. Not much is known about why so few homeless youth, whether in shelters or on the streets, use human services available to them (aside from short-term use of shelters for some). Similar to recent studies of homelessness among adults (e.g., Acosta & Toro, 2000), future research needs to ask the homeless youth themselves about their experiences and satisfaction with various services. Most likely, attention will be needed to alter approaches used by existing programs and services to make them more accessible and "user friendly."
  8. Most existing research on homeless youth has focused on the "literally homeless," those who have spent at least some time in homeless shelters, on the streets, or living in other unconventional settings (Toro, 1998). Future research should also focus on youth who "couch surf" or who are otherwise precariously housed. This group may be larger than, and at equal risk as, those who are literally homeless.
  9. Developing effective prevention and intervention strategies requires a clearer understanding of what youth experience before and after they become homeless. Toward that end, we need more quantitative and qualitative research to explore the outcomes of homeless youth, including the pathways through which they exit, or fail to exit, homelessness. More longitudinal studies are also needed to examine how environmental, family, and individual factors affect both their short-term and long-term outcomes. Disentangling the effects of these different types of factors will also require multivariate data analytic techniques.
  10. Preventive interventions with youth aging out of foster care and youthful offenders should be expanded. Although some programs exist, little firm empirical evidence exists on what works. Broader and better designed preventive interventions are needed.
  11. It appears that few if any of the studies reviewed above directly involved homeless or other at-risk youth in the research process. We believe that such youth should, ideally, be consulted at every stage, including the design of the study, the development of survey instruments or interview protocols, the collection of data, the interpretation of results, and the dissemination of findings. Not only can involving homeless or other at-risk youth in the research process improve the quality of the research (Jason et al., 2004), but it may increase the likelihood that the research leads to better policy and practice. Similarly, there should be more collaboration between service providers and researchers, both to improve the quality of the research and the ability for the research to be applied to policy and intervention.
  12. With regard to theoretical approaches, there is a need to move beyond the pervasive deficit orientation in much of the research toward more positive, resilience-based frameworks. There is also a need to more carefully consider the developmental contexts in which youth who are homeless or at risk for homelessness exist and to develop a better international understanding of homeless youth.

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