Young People Experience Significant Disruption and Loss Both Before and During Their Homelessness

Kee Cooper, a social worker with foster children in Washington, DC, discusses study findings and her own experiences with homelessness.

Young people across five diverse U.S. counties shared stories of instability that highlighted missed opportunities for prevention and intervention. Youth’s insights point to critical areas for improvement: the need for multilevel supports for individuals and families, the importance of peers for building connections to trustworthy spaces and resources, and the identification of specific changes that need to be made to service systems. This is the sixth in a series of briefs from the Voices of Youth Count initiative.

What we did

This brief draws exclusively from one component of Voices of Youth Count, the in-depth interviews (IDI) done with 215 youth ages 13 to 25 in 5 counties in the U.S. The IDI component is the largest qualitative study of its kind on youth homelessness in the U.S. It included narrative mixed-method design and a nationally and regionally diverse sample. We gathered three kinds of data from youth who were currently unstably housed: in-depth narrative interviews, housing timelines (exploring all the places and people with whom youth had stayed/slept) and background surveys. This brief shares a portion of the findings.

What we found

  • Young people link the beginnings of their homelessness to early family instability and disruptions of home, including entrance into foster care and family homelessness
  • Young people name multilevel factors—critical conditions—that shaped how pathways through homelessness unfolded
  • Youth’s pathways through homelessness reflect geographic mobility and fluidity in sleeping arrangements
  • Youth pathways through homelessness are also characterized by significant personal losses; 35% of youth experienced the death of at least one parent or primary caregiver

What it means

This brief elevates the voices of youth as a call to adults to rethink and redouble their efforts in ending youth homelessness. Youth’s stories challenge us to reconsider when prevention and intervention would be most effective. Their stories underscore that homelessness is symptomatic of much larger and enduring challenges in our society, systems, and institutions, and consequently, in families who often navigate these challenges on their own. The findings also emphasize that this period of time is developmentally significant and, therefore, developmental awareness must directly inform any strategy for addressing homelessness. Additionally, their stories highlight the consequences of chronic interpersonal trauma and loss, and the critical importance of safe emergency shelters and transitional housing. The findings call for solutions and service systems that are responsive to the level of mobility and fluidity youth experience in their living situations, and the relational complexity youth navigate with family, broadly defined.

The brief is accompanied by recommended revisions to the federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which authorizes community-based temporary shelter and care, and specifically targets services for minors. Chapin Hall provides specific recommendations to the law as examples and invite debate to strengthen what we’ve proposed.

In addition to the brief and the recommended revisions to the law, journal articles on this work have been published in the Journal of Social Service Research and Cityscape.

Recommended Citation
Samuels, G. M., Cerven, C., Curry, S., Robinson, S. R., & Patel, S. (2019). Missed opportunities in youth pathways through homelessness. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
Youth Pathways report RHYA revisions One-page summary Voices of Youth Count Component Report