Primary Sources: The Experience of Traveling Homeless Youth

Photograph of a homeless teen couple.

Increased Substance Use and Risky Sexual Behavior Among Migratory Homeless Youth: Exploring the Role of Social Network Composition, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol. 40, No. 12.

What it’s about: Researchers interviewed 13- to 24-year-old homeless youth living in Los Angeles about their substance use and sexual behavior. The researchers looked at youth who travel from city to city and youth who stay in one place and compared their social networks, risky behavior and use of services.

Why read it: Some may idealize the life of so-called “travelers,” homeless youth who go from city to city and town to town, as care-free and independent. This is one of only a few studies that have examined the unique experience of homeless traveling youth and the risks they face.

Biggest takeaway for youth workers: This study found that travelers were more likely than non-travelers to

  • drink heavily and use drugs
  • have more sex partners
  • have sex with someone in exchange for food, money or a place to stay
  • spend the night in unsafe places

The risk of using drugs increased even more when travelers had many friends who were not in school or employed.

Although travelers and non-travelers face many of the same challenges, the travelers were less likely to make use of services that could help them stabilize their lives, including homeless shelters. The authors note that travelers may be more likely to balk at the strict rules often imposed by shelters, or may simply feel they don’t “fit in” at these settings. Travelers were also less likely than non-travelers to get substance use counseling, despite their significantly higher rates of use.

Services for traveling youth need to be targeted specifically to their unique needs and preferences, the authors say. For example, because travelers are on the move, youth workers may need to build trust and provide services more quickly than with non-travelers. Programs for travelers should also be designed so that when they do seek help, they are quickly connected to multiple services.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of these and other publications.)

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