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


In addition to research on how to best address the needs of youth who are already homeless, other studies have focused on preventive interventions. This interest in the prevention of homelessness among youth is a relativelyr ecent development (e.g., Lindblom, 1996; Shinn & Baumohl, 1999; Toro, Lombardo, & Yapchai, 2002), and many interventions designed to prevent youth from ever becoming homeless (primary prevention) could just as easily be used to prevent youth who are currently homeless from becoming homeless again (secondary prevention; see Dalton, Elias, & Wandersman, 2007). Below, we discuss a number of issues regarding the prevention of homelessness. We focus on two groups of youth for whom the risk of becoming homeless appears to be particularly high: youth aging out of foster care and juvenile offenders.

Family-focused preventive programs. Given that the youth frequently cite family conflict as the main reason for their homelessness, it should not be surprising that some homelessness prevention programs have focused on family dynamics and their impact on youth development. These programs include support groups for parents, parenting skills classes, and teaching conflict resolution skills. The assumption is that these programs will lead to improved family relationships, and thus prevent youth from becoming homeless.

One example of this approach is Project SAFE, a program operated by Cocoon House in Snohomish County, Washington (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2002). Project SAFE provides three services to parents and other caretakers who are concerned about a youth’s behavior: phone consultation, groups or workshops, and a resource library. Parents or caretakers can call and speak with a master's level therapist who works with parents to develop a plan of action and decide what community resources will be needed to implement the plan. Plans can include steps to help parents deal with personal problems that may be contributing to the conflict with their youth. Parents receive a follow-up call, usually one week later, to check on their situation and provide any additional referrals. Parents can also participate in support groups that focus on cognitive behavioral skills or educational workshops that seek to raise awareness of parental risk factors that contribute to problem behaviors. In both cases, the goal is to promote healthier family functioning and to prevent teen homelessness. In FY 2005–2006, Project SAFE served 194 parents/caretakers. Outcome data showed a significant increase in parents’ perceived ability to cope with their youth as well as a significant decrease in parental perception of the youth needing to leave the home (Gagliano, 2006).

Another family-focused intervention that has the potential to reduce youth homelessness is multisystemic therapy (MST). Families are provided with intensive, home-based services. Master’s-level therapists empower parents to control their adolescent’s behavior by enhancing supervisory and monitoring skills. They also coordinate service provision among parents, individual counselors, teachers, peers, and others with a stake in the youth’s future.

Numerous randomized controlled trials have shown that MST can reduce antisocial behavior, even years following the treatment among chronic juvenile delinquents (Henggeler et al., 1997; Henggeler, Pickrel, & Brondino, 1999). MST clients have significantly fewer out-of-home placements and decreased recidivism (Henggeler et al., 1997; Henggeler, Pickrel, & Brondino, 1999). MST has also been successfully adapted for a wide range of other target groups of youth, including those with mental disorders and chronic health problems (Henggeler, 2006).

Homeless youth and delinquent youth have many similarities, including an absence of adult supervision, a lack of consistent discipline, and association with deviant peers (Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999). Thus, future research should examine ways to tailor such programs to directly address the needs of youth at risk for homelessness as well as evaluate the efficacy of such programs.

School-based preventive programs. School-based programs have the potential to prevent homelessness in adolescents at risk to run away by providing prosocial niches outside the home where they may be less vulnerable to influences of deviant peers (Johanson, Duffy, & Anthony, 1996). In addition, youth may have more opportunity to develop positive social bonds that discourage deviant behavior often associated with family conflict (Hirschi, 1969). However, programs that target youth at risk for homelessness have yet to be developed or evaluated. In-school and after-school prevention programs have shown to be effective in reducing the risk of youth delinquency and substance abuse (Crank, Crank, & Christensen, 2003; Pierce & Shields, 1998), and thus, may be extended to reductions of homelessness.

Preventing homelessness among youth aging out of foster care. Preventing homelessness among youth aging out of care has long been a goal of federal policy. In fact, it was partly in response to several studies indicating that young adults who had aged out of care were at high risk of becoming homeless that Congress created the Title IV-E Independent Living Program in 1986 (Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York City, 1984; New York State Council on Children and Families, 1984; Shaffer & Caton, 1984). For more than a decade, this was the primary source of funding available to states to prepare their foster youth for the transition to young adulthood. States could use their Title IV-E funds to provide housing services such as helping youth find a place to live; however, the law prohibited those funds from being used for transitional housing or independent living subsidies (Allen, Bonner, & Greenan, 1988; Barth, 1990).

The Title IV-E program was replaced when Congress passed the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 (FCIA). Title I of this legislation established the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program and doubled the federal allotment for state independent living programs that prepare foster youth for the transition to adulthood. These funds can be used to provide youth with a wide range of services, including services to promote education and employment, life skills training, health education, case management, and mentoring (Ansell, 2001). Two provisions, in particular, are relevant to the prevention of homeless among youth aging out of foster care. One allows states to use up to 30 percent of their federal Chafee funds to pay for the room and board of former foster youth who are at least 18 years old but not yet 21. The other requires states to use at least some portion of their funds to provide follow-up services to foster youth after they age out. In the past, such services could be provided at state option, but seldom were.

States are currently using their Chafee funds as well as funding from other sources to assist foster youth with housing. For example, the Massachusetts Department of Social Services uses some of its Chafee money to fund its Discharge Support Program, which helps foster youth with their first month’s rent, security deposits, and other assistance, but the youth must be employed and able to pay their own rent. Connecticut's Community Housing Assistance Program (CHAPS) provides foster youth, age 18 and older who are working and enrolled in school, with a subsidy for rent and other living expenses. In fact, CHAPS is part of a continuum of housing options for Connecticut foster youth that also includes group homes for 14- to 16-year-olds and transitional living apartments for 16- and 17-year-olds. Illinois’s Youth Housing Assistance Program targets youth who have aged out or will soon age out and are at risk of becoming homeless. The program provides housing advocacy services to help youth between the ages of 17.5 and 21 to secure and maintain stable housing as well as cash assistance to help with deposits, emergency rental assistance, temporary rental subsidies, and furniture and appliances.

Partnering is another strategy that states have implemented to address the housing needs of foster youth. Some states are taking advantage of federal legislation that made youth aging out of foster care eligible for housing assistance under the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Family Unification Program (FUP). In these states, child welfare agencies collaborate with housing authorities and/or community-based organizations to provide foster youth with time-limited housing vouchers over 18 months as well as other services. States with FUP programs for foster youth include New York, Colorado, Ohio, and California. In addition, some localities, including New York City, give foster youth priority access to Section 8 vouchers.

Most recently, Toro, et al. (2006) have proposed a comprehensive program that would both prevent homelessness and other negative outcomes among youth aging out of foster care and improve their emotional, behavioral, and socioeconomic well-being. The intervention would target foster youth transitioning to adulthood beginning at age 17. The program would be based on an intensive case management model and MST approaches and would involve the assessment of service needs across a number of domains, advocacy for the provision of services, coordination of service provision, and monitoring of service delivery. Small caseloads and frequent contact between case managers and youth would be important to keep youth who lack support from family members or other adults from falling through the cracks and because the quality of the client-case manager relationship is a key predictor of successful outcomes (Casey Family Programs, 2005; Thompson et al., 2006).

Youth would generally be referred to community resources, but program staff could provide services that are not available as well as direct funds to support independence (e.g., rent money to avoid eviction). In addition to service provision, the program would focus on empowering youth to make responsible life decisions. Toward this end, case managers would use a person-centered approach that emphasizes youth’s strengths and preferences as well as motivational interviewing (Miller & Rollnick, 2002), a therapeutic technique that seems to be effective in promoting positive change behavior seven among multi-problem populations such as low-income, African American substance abusing mothers (Ondersma et a., 2005). Toro et al. (2006) have also recommended that the intervention be evaluated using random assignment within a longitudinal design, with data collected at baseline and then again at 6-month intervals for 18 months in total. It is hoped that this intervention will be implemented and evaluated starting in late 2007.

Although independent living programs have been described (e.g., Hoge & Idalski, 2001), there is very little in the way of empirical data regarding their effectiveness. Due to another provision in the FCIA, states will soon be required to track the outcomes of current and former foster youth at ages 17, 19, and 21 and report those outcomes to the National Youth in Transition Database. Homelessness is one of the six outcomes about which they will be required to report.

Several other issues related to research on the prevention of homelessness among youth aging out of care also merit attention. First, findings from the Midwest study indicate that some foster youth, including those who run away repeatedly, are at even greater risk. Targeting those youth for preventive interventions both before and after they leave care would seem to make sense, and the impacts of those interventions should be formally evaluated. Second, the Midwest study also found that feeling close to at least one family member reduced the likelihood of becoming homeless. This has important practice implications for child welfare agencies. Specifically, it suggests that more attention should be paid to maintaining relationships between foster youth and members of their biological family, including grandparents and siblings. Such attention may, perhaps, even be appropriate when the family is somewhat dysfunctional, because, if we wish to prevent homelessness, some (even imperfect) support from family may be better than no support at all. What is not yet clear, and merits further investigation, is why closeness to family has what appears to be a protective effect. One possibility is that family members are a resource to whom foster youth can turn if there is no other place for them to stay. Another is that strong family ties reflect underlying individual or environmental resources that function to protect youth. In any event, interventions aimed at promoting family ties, where doing so is in a youth’s best interest, should be developed and their ability to reduce the risk of homelessness should be explored.

Third, one of the most striking findings to emerge from the Midwest study was that the foster youth who were still in care at age 19 seemed to be faring better than their peers who had left. There were statistically significant differences across a number of domains, including college enrollment, access to health care, and criminal justice system involvement, and they consistently favored the 19-year-olds who were still in care. It remains to be seen whether those differences will persist once the foster youth who were still in care at age 19 have also exited. A third wave of survey data being collected from the foster youth when they are 21 years old will begin to address this question. For now, at least, the results suggest that one way to reduce the percentage of youth who become homeless after aging out of care would be to extend their eligibility until age 21, as is already the case in a few states like Illinois.

Fourth, an often overlooked provision of the FCIA requires states to use some of their federal training funds to assist foster parents, group home workers, and case managers do a better job of preparing foster youth for the challenges they face during the transition to adulthood. With respect to preventing homelessness, this means educating foster parents, group home workers, and case managers about how to help their foster youth find housing and remain housed. To this end, Casey Family Programs (2005) has published It’s My Life, a series of guides, including one focused on housing, that contain practical strategies and on-line resources for adults working with these youth. Researchers could examine whether educating foster parents, group home workers, or case managers about these or other strategies leads to more stable housing and lower rates of homelessness.

Finally, although the FCIA requires states to use a portion of their Chafee funds to provide supportive services to foster youth after they age out, at least some research suggests that young adults may not take advantage of such services even when they are available (Lindblom, 1996). Just why this is the case is not well understood. It may be that young adults are reluctant to participate in services that they associate with foster care or that they object to the conditions of participation. It is also possible that such services are perceived to be of little help.

Preventing homelessness among youthful offenders. As explained above, youthful offenders can become trapped in a cycle of homelessness and incarceration. If they return to the streets after their release, there is a strong chance they will become involved in the same behaviors that initially led to their arrest (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2001). Thus, programs that assist youthful offenders to find housing and stay housed have the potential not only to prevent homelessness but also to reduce recidivism in the criminal justice system.

Unfortunately, although a number of programs have been developed to help youthful offenders with the process of reentry, not much is known about their effects on homelessness prevention. One exception is the young adult component of the Going Home Reentry Grant in Polk County, Iowa. This program targets youthful offenders, aged 17.5 to 20 years, who are leaving state training schools. A Community Transition Team works with the youthful offender to create an individualized wrap-around plan that addresses housing and other service needs. In some cases, this plan involves reunification with parents or other family members. In other cases, housing is secured using project funds. Although there has been no formal evaluation of the program, there are outcome data for the 47 youthful offenders (32 males and 15 females) who were served during a three-year grant period. Seventy-nine percent of the females and 84 percent of the males were able to establish a stable residence.

The housing needs of youthful offenders have also been addressed by programs that target youth aging out of foster care. For example, Lighthouse Youth Services in Cincinnati, Ohio, runs an independent living program that focuses on foster youth between the ages of 16 and 19 as well as a transitional living program that targets homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 25 (Kroner, 2005). However, a number of youthful offenders are also served each year. Referrals come from child welfare agencies, homeless shelters, juvenile courts, and community-based organizations. Lighthouse's housing continuum includes several housing options for youth: scattered-site apartments, supervised apartments, shared homes (for four or five youth), host homes, and boarding homes. Youth move from more structured to less restrictive living arrangements, depending on the level of support and services they need. Unfortunately, no formal outcome data have been collected to date.

Employment programs as a prevention strategy. Although preventing homelessness is usually not a primary goal of employment programs, it stands to reason that youth and young adults are less likely to become homeless if they are self-sufficient and stably employed. From this perspective, several programs funded by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) could be considered preventive interventions. One example of this approach involves programs funded under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). Low-income youth between the ages of 14 and 21 are eligible to receive WIA-funded services if they face one or more recognized barriers to completing school and attaining economic self-sufficiency. These services allow youth to continue their education and pursue employment. Youth aging out of foster care, homeless youth, and youth who have been involved with the juvenile justice system are among WIA's target populations.

In addition to these WIA services, DOL also funds a number of other workforce development and support services that can help prevent homelessness among at-risk youth. Job Corps is the largest and most comprehensive residential vocational training and education program for at-risk youth between the ages of 16 and 24. Youth aging out of foster care and runaway or homeless youth are among the target populations of Job Corps. In a multi-year evaluation of the program, eligible youth were randomly assigned to a treatment group that received Job Corps services or a control group that did not. They were interviewed at the time of enrollment and then again at 12, 30, and 48 months after random assignment. The researchers did not look specifically at homelessness. However, Job Corps participation was related to independent living at the 48-month interview. A slightly smaller percentage of program group members were living with their parents, and a slightly larger percentage were living with a partner and reported being the head of the household (Burghart et al., 2001; Schochet, Burghardt, & Glazerman, 2001).

Likewise, DOL's Youth Offender Demonstration Program (YODP) is a labor-focused reentry program for youth ages 14 to 24 returning to their communities from detention or incarceration and who are already involved in the juvenile/criminal justice system, are gang members, or are at risk of gang or court involvement. Of particular relevance to homelessness prevention, some YODP sites are working with nonprofit housing programs. Unfortunately, no formal evaluation of the YODP has ever been completed.

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