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


Homelessness among adolescents and young adults is a major social concern in the United States. Robertson and Toro (1999) concluded that youth maybe the single age group most at risk of becoming homeless. Nevertheless, most of the research that has been conducted over the last two decades has focused on homeless adults, including those with mental disorders and substance abuse problems. Studies that have examined homelessness among adolescents and young adults as well as other age groups, have often cast the problem as one of individual vulnerabilities rather than as a social phenomenon involving transactions between individuals and their environments (Haber & Toro,2004; Shinn, 1992; Toro et al., 1991). This research has also been of limited value with respect to the development of public policies or empirically based interventions that either assist youth who are currently homeless or prevent homelessness among adolescents and young adults who are at risk (Shinn & Baumohl, 1999; Toro, Lombardo, & Yapchai, 2002).

These problems notwithstanding, some progress has been made since Robertson and Toro reviewed the literature on homeless youth over eight years ago for the 1998 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Longitudinal studies, including research on youth “aging out” of foster care, have been an important source of information. Our knowledge about what works when it comes to prevention and programs that target homeless youth has also increased, although significant gaps remain. After briefly discussing some definitional issues and describing the homeless youth population and its constituent subgroups along a number of dimensions, we summarize what has been learned in recent years.

Definitional Issues. We begin with a fundamental question. What does it mean to say that a youth is homeless? Alternatively, who does the population of homeless youth include? The Runaway and HomelessYouth Act (RHYA) defines homeless youth as individuals who are “not more than 21 years of age … for whom it is not possible to live in a safe environment with a relative and who have no other safe alternative living arrangement.” Implicit in this definition is the notion that homeless youth are not accompanied by a parent or guardian (Haber & Toro, 2004). The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the primary piece of federal legislation pertaining to the education of homeless children, provides a somewhat different definition. According to Subtitle B of Title VII of that legislation, youth are homeless if they “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” In contrast to the RHYA, McKinney-Ventoapplies not only to unaccompanied youth but also to those who are homeless or doubled up with their families. Because homeless families with children are the focus of another paper in this Symposium, we will adopt a more restrictive definition that excludes youth who are homeless with a parent or other guardian and youth who are wards of the state.

Homeless youth can be distinguished from two other homeless populations: single adults, who are predominantly male and do not have children in their custody; and homeless families, typically comprising a mother and her children.1 Homeless youth include runaways, who have left home without parental permission, throwaways, who have been forced to leave home by their parents, and street youth, who have spent at least some time living on the streets as well as systems youth—i.e., young people who become homeless after aging out of foster care or exiting the juvenile justice system (Farrow, et al., 1992). Although these categories reflect important distinctions among youth with respect to the reasons they are homeless and their experiences while homeless, they are neither static nor mutually exclusive(Hammer, Finkelhor, & Sedlak, 2002), and it can be difficult to determine which label best applies. Youth may perceive themselves as being thrown out by their parents, while parents may perceive their son or daughter as running away. In other cases, youth may be removed from their home by child welfare authorities and then run away from their out-of-home care placement or leave home by mutual agreement with their parents. Street youth often spend significant amounts of time in adult caregivers’ homes, shelters, and temporary quarters with friends or other family (Greenblatt & Robertson, 1993). The one thing homeless youth have in common is that they are on their own without the supervision of an adult caretaker (Haber & Toro, 2004). In order to allow review of the full array of relevant literature, the present paper uses a broad definition, including all youth ages 12 to 25 who fit either the RHYA or McKinney-Vento definition (so long as they are “homeless on their own”).

1. In the U.S. and other developed nations, relatively few homeless families (12 to 20 percent) include children age 12 or older (Buckner, Bassuk, Weinreb, & Brooks, 1999; Burt et al., 2001), and children under age 12 are rarely found homeless on their own (Robertson & Toro, 1999). In fact, many shelters for homeless families exclude children age 12 or older who shelter staff fear might prey upon the younger ones. As a result, homeless families with older children are often compelled to leave their older children with friends or relatives before entering a shelter.

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