Primary Sources: Understanding Social Networks Among Homeless Youth

Photograph of a young man on the streets.

A Qualitative Study of the Formation and Composition of Social Networks Among Homeless Youth, Journal of Research on Adolescence, Vol. 21, Issue 4, December 2011.

What it’s about: Who are homeless youth connected to socially, how do those connections get made, and how do they help or hurt youth? To answer those questions, researchers interviewed 19 homeless youth, ages 14 to 21. Young people's quotes about their friends, family, partners and others they consider part of their "social network" are included in the paper.

Why read it: Social networks are an important part of homeless youths’ lives. The people they know help them with daily survival, give advice, offer emotional and social support, and often protect them. This article provides insight about the ways homeless youth make friends, relate to their romantic partners, and stay connected to people from home.

Biggest takeaways for youth workers: The youth in the study had diverse networks made up of males and females of different ages. Youth were connected to people they knew both from home and the street, including some people who were homeless and others who were not.

The researchers found that non-homeless people who were connected to homeless youth

  • kept them out of some kinds of trouble and sometimes encouraged them to act in more healthy ways; but
  • didn’t always understand homeless youths’ experiences.

Homeless people who were connected to the youth in the study

  • provided support and information about where to find food and shelter; but
  • tended to participate in more risky behaviors, like having unsafe sex, drinking and using drugs.

Many of the young people interviewed said they didn’t choose their social networks but rather fell into them as a result of being homeless. Some homeless youth didn’t approve of the things their friends or partners did. But the homeless youth didn't sever the connections, possibly because they had few other options or these people helped them survive on the street.

Additional reference: Listen to NCFY’s podcast, in which a formerly homeless 19 year-old, who is starting a foundation with a family friend, explains why youth who know the streets can be powerful advocates for change.

See NCFY’s other resources on serving runaway and homeless youth.

(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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