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


Many homeless youth report a history of out-of-home care placement. The percentage who report being placed in foster care or an institutional setting varies across studies, but estimates range between 21 and 53 percent (Cauce et al., 1998; Robertson, 1989, 1991; Toro & Goldstein, 2000). A similar pattern has been observed among homeless adults (Firdion, 2004; Toro, Wolfe et al., 1999).

Of particular concern in this regard is the experience of youth who "age out" of foster care when they turn 18 or, in some states, 21. Although these youth are expected to live independently and support themselves once they leave the child welfare system, they often lack the financial, social, and personal resources needed to do so (Lindblom, 1996). As a result, this population is at high risk of becoming homeless after they age out. In fact, studies conducted in both Hollywood and San Francisco found that more than one-quarter of the street youth who had been discharged from state care spent their first night in a shelter or on the streets (Clark & Robertson, 1996; Robertson, 1989). Findings from several recent studies of youth aging out of foster care also illustrate this link.

The Foster Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study. Courtney et al. (2001) collected baseline survey data from 141 Wisconsin foster youth in 1995. The youth were 17 or 18 years old and had been in care for a minimum of 18 months. Eighty percent, or 113, of these foster youth were re-interviewed 12 to 18 months after they left care. These young adults were similar to the baseline sample with respect to gender, race/ethnicity, and placement region (Milwaukee vs. the balance of the state). Among the outcomes the researchers examined was homelessness. Twelve percent of the follow-up sample reported being homeless for at least one night within 12 months of aging out (Courtney et al., 2001).

Youth Aging Out of Foster Care in Metropolitan Detroit. Fowler, Toro et al. (2006) surveyed 264 youth from the total population of the 867 youth who had aged out over a two-year period from the foster care system in the three largest counties in the metropolitan Detroit area. The 264 youth were interviewed, on average, 3.6 years after exiting from foster care. At follow-up, the sample had an average age of 20.6 years; 52 percent were female; and 78 percent were African American. The follow-up sample of 264 was representative of the population of 867 in terms of demographic characteristics (e.g., gender, age, race/ethnicity) and foster care experiences (e.g., number of placements, age at entry, reason for placement). The purpose of the survey was to assess the functioning of these youth across various life domains since leaving foster care. The domains included housing, education, employment, emotional and behavioral well-being, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, and victimization.

A total of 17 percent of the youth experienced literal homelessness during the follow-up period, including 3 percent who were literally homeless at the time they were interviewed. By comparison, the national five-year prevalence rate for literal homelessness among all adults in the United States was just 2 percent in 2001 (Tompsett et al., 2006). Those who experienced literal homelessness did so for an average of 61 days; the likelihood of experiencing literal homelessness did not vary by gender or race/ethnicity.

Just because youth were not literally homeless did not mean that they always had a stable place to live. On the contrary, one-third of the youth had spent time doubled up with other families or “couch surfing” among friends and relatives because they could not afford more permanent housing. This includes 12 percent who were precariously housed at the time of their interview. The mean number of times that these youth were precariously housed was 2.8 and the median duration of each episode was 13 months.

Most commonly, youth attributed their precarious housing or homelessness to economic factors such as a lack of employment, lack of affordable housing, termination of public assistance, or eviction. One-quarter of the youth who became homeless attributed their homelessness to problems with their families. In fact, this was the most common reason for becoming homeless immediately following exit from the foster care system.

Significant differences were found among the literally homeless, the precariously housed, and the continuously housed. Literally homeless youth reported significantly more personal victimization and deviant behavior than youth who were either continuously or precariously housed. However, both literally homeless and precariously housed youth experienced higher rates of psychological distress and alcohol or other drug abuse than continuously housed youth. In addition, literally homeless youth were more likely to report engaging in risky sexual behavior as compared to housed youth. Additional analyses suggested that both literal homelessness and precarious housing increased the risk of personal victimization, which in turn, increased the likelihood of other negative outcomes, such as psychological distress, deviant behavior, and marijuana use, even after controlling for age, gender, and race.

There was also some evidence that becoming homeless immediately post-discharge may have particularly negative effects. Youth who experienced homelessness right after they left care reported greater psychological distress, victimization, and deviant behavior than those who did not become homeless until later. The former were also less likely to have a high school diploma or GED and less likely to have received additional schooling since leaving care. What is not clear is whether the youth who became homeless immediately were already more vulnerable at the time they exited, or whether they became more vulnerable as a result of becoming homeless so quickly.

In many cases, the youth who experienced housing problems after exiting foster care did not receive services to address their needs. Less than one-third received services at homeless shelters and only 3 percent received help from outreach services. Although nearly two thirds reported going a whole day without food, just 15 percent received assistance from soup kitchens.  Likewise, 70 percent of these youth had clinically significant mental health, substance abuse, or behavioral problems, but only 21 percent received psychological services.  In contrast, 88 percent of these precariously housed and homeless youth received medical care since aging out of the system. Many of the youth were able to take advantage of Medicaid eligibility allowed under state foster care policy in order to get medical care.

The Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth. The relationship between homelessness and out-of-home care placement is also being examined by an ongoing three-state longitudinal study that is following a sample of 732 foster youth from Iowa (63 youth), Wisconsin (195), and Illinois (474) as they age out of the child welfare system and transition into adulthood (Courtney et al., 2005). All of these youth had been victims of child maltreatment and entered foster care before age 16. The youth were initially interviewed at age 17 or 18, while they were still state wards, and then again at age 19. Just over half (321) of the 603 foster youth who completed a follow-up interview were no longer in care, and their mean time since leaving care was 14.5 months.

Although few of these youth were currently living on the streets, 14 percent (45) had been homeless for at least one night since they aged out. Homelessness was defined as sleeping “in a place where people weren't meant to sleep,” sleeping “in a homeless shelter,” or not having “a regular residence in which to sleep.” Two-thirds of the ever-homeless group had become homeless within six months of exiting and more than half (54 percent) had experienced more than one homeless episode.

A multivariate analysis using logistic regression showed that the best predictor of becoming homeless after aging out was whether a youth had repeatedly runaway from an out-of-home care placement. Running away more than once was associated with an almost ninefold increase in the odds of becoming homeless. There was also a positive relationship between the odds of becoming homeless and the number of delinquent behaviors in which the youth had engaged. By contrast, feeling very close to at least one family member reduced the odds of becoming homeless by nearly 80 percent. 

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