Primary Sources: Reconnecting Homeless Youth to Avoid Criminal Activity

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Photograph of homeless young people.

Social Control Correlates of Arrest Behavior Among Homeless Youth in Five U.S. Cities (abstract), Violence and Victims, Volume 26, Number 5, 2011.

What it’s about: Researchers interviewed 238 homeless youth from five large U.S. cities about their time spent on the street, employment history, substance use, mental health, criminal history and use of social services. The researchers wanted to know which factors were associated with more criminal activity and higher rates of arrest among homeless youth.

Why read it: To survive on the streets, some homeless youth engage in illegal activities like prostitution, theft and selling drugs. When these youth want to leave the streets, having a criminal record can keep them from getting the services and support they need.

By understanding the factors that make homeless youth more likely to commit crimes, youth workers can better understand what they can do to keep youth from getting in trouble in the first place.

Biggest takeaways for youth workers: Researchers found that arrests were higher among homeless youth who

  • had been on the street longer;
  • had already gotten in trouble with the law;
  • had earned income by committing crimes and had not had legal jobs;
  • had drinking or drug problems; and
  • had depression or manic episodes.

The authors suggest that the key to keeping homeless youth from committing crimes and getting arrested may be connecting them to the positive influences of school, jobs and adult role models. Making those connections poses a big challenge because homeless youth are often so disconnected and marginalized. But doing so is critical, the authors say, to help youth learn about and internalize society's positive values. Healthy influences also help set expectations for and model appropriate attitudes and behavior.

Additional references: "Beyond City Limits: Cross-System Collaboration to Reengage Disconnected Youth" by the National League of Cities describes examples of programs in cities around the United States working to reconnect homeless youth with education and employment.

Visit the Runaway and Homeless Youth section on NCFY’s website for the latest research and best practices in serving homeless youth.

Also, check out NCFY’s "Assessment and Screening Tools for Measuring Mental Health, Substance Abuse, and Independent Living Skills in Adolescents."

(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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