Research Identifies Risk Factors for Youth Homelessnes

written by Sharon McDonald
September 18, 2013

Nationally, we know that youth who age out of foster care have a high rate of homelessness. By the age of 26, over one-third of the youth who age out of foster care will experience homelessness. Now research presented at the Alliance 2013 National Conference in July tells us which youth are most susceptible to homelessness. This information can help child welfare agencies target subsets of youth at greatest risk and avoid policies that might heighten their risk of homelessness. Here’s what a youth who ages out of foster care and is at a greater risk of experiencing looks like. The youth is a male who:

  • Has run away from foster care at least once;
  • Has a history of being physically abused;
  • Exhibits symptoms of mental health disorders;
  • Has moved from place to place more often; and
  • Has engaged in multiple incidences of delinquency.

The research suggests that young people who have strong connections to families may be less likely to experience homelessness after aging out of foster care than other youth who lack such connections. In other words the young person’s connection to his or her family could serve as a protective factor. While the evidence for this wasn’t strong, it does seem to make sense, since many young people choose to live with their families after aging out of foster care.

Now that we know these risk factors, we know where child welfare agencies should focus their attention and resources to help prevent homelessness for the youth they serve.

Disrupted placements

Stability is important to the young and old alike. Agencies that repeatedly move youth increase the likelihood that those youth will become homeless. So we need to identify strategies to reduce disrupted placements and increase the stability and safety of youth in care. Since increasing foster homes can ultimately reduce the number of placements, agencies could focus on using creative strategies to recruit new foster care parents. Agencies could also focus on building the skills of foster care parents in order to improve the quality of placements.

Family relationships

We know that strong connections between youth and their families are important. So agencies and their partnering organizations could promote healthy and strong relationships between youth and their family of origin or extended family, even when family reunification is not a goal. Such support could be particularly helpful for youth dealing with the challenges that come with returning to live with their family after exiting foster care.

Extending foster care

It appears that the risk factors of youth most vulnerable to homelessness are evident long before the youth exit foster care. More needs to be done to identify these young people who exhibit behavioral risk factors like running away or delinquency, or who show signs of mental health problems. Supportive services can help prepare young people like these for exiting foster care.

Some states are extending foster care to age 21, which will allow states to extend support and provide more time to youth as the youth prepare to transition to more independent settings. Massachusetts and California are both using the opportunity to extend foster care to tailor housing and service interventions that are appropriate for older youth.

To date, this holds only promise.  The available research conducted so far indicates that extending foster care delays, rather than prevents, later homelessness among youth who age out of care.


Photo by Elvert Barnes.