Data Points: Supporting Homeless Youth

written by Sam Batko
November 5, 2013

November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month. Throughout the month, we will feature research on homeless youth and what we know about ending homelessness for young people. Today, I’m going to focus on support networks that homeless youth have and the implications those support networks can have on how we help a youth exit homelessness.

A recent study examined the nature of homeless youths’ relationships with their families, sex partners, and housed and homeless peers. It found that:

  • Family members were the most likely providers of both tangible and emotional support and that youth have, on average, about three to four family members in their support network;
  • Sex partners are also a frequent provider of both tangible and emotional support, but the number of sex partners that youth have varied greatly from one partner in a committed relationship to more than 10 partners in less clearly defined relationship statuses, possibly indicating “survival sex”; and
  • Homeless peers are less likely to be a source of tangible or emotional support and instead housed and employed peers and those peers in school are more likely to provide support.

These findings have important implications for helping homeless youth. First and foremost, as has been previously indicated, programs serving homeless youth should help them build and maintain relationships with their families even if they cannot or do not want to return home. These relationships help increase youths’ resources and improve their mental well-being and, in many instances, youth do eventually return home safely to family.

Second, while healthy relationships with sex partners may provide support, youth may need help creating sexual relationships that detangle the provision of support from the provision of sex. Providers should be accepting of a youth’s choices and should not turn a youth away from services for choices regarding sex, but being aware of possible exploitation and having staff with training on how to deal with youth in these situations is extremely important.

Lastly, seeing as a youth’s homeless peers are less likely to provide either tangible or emotional support, youth may benefit from distancing themselves from their homeless peers and instead seek interactions and stronger relationships with their housed, employed, and in-school peers. Providers should of course be sensitive to an individual youth’s experiences and needs, but overall it appears that suggesting a youth associate less with homeless peers will not have a negative impact on their emotional well-being.