Primary Sources: Can Teaching Homeless Youth to Solve Problems Keep Them Safe?

Photograph of a young man sitting in a playground looking sad

Protective Factors Associated with Fewer Multiple Problem Behaviors Among Homeless/Runaway Youth” (abstract). Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, Vol. 40, No. 6 (2011).

What it’s about: In studies of risky behavior among homeless youth, many young people have said they use drugs, trade sex for money or drugs and engage in other risky sexual behaviors, and get in trouble with the law by doing things like using a gun or knife or shoplifting. What's more, these behaviors are usually linked. To see if better planning and problem-solving skills would help youth avoid all three risky behaviors at once, the authors studied nearly 500 homeless 12- to 24-year-olds in Los Angeles.  

Why read it: We know a lot about the risks that homeless youth take. But researchers and service providers are still exploring what programming might work best to help homeless young people choose less harmful paths. This study adds to the research on what works.

Biggest takeaway for youth workers: The authors found that youth who had learned to set goals, make good decisions and cope with problems on their own were less likely than their peers to behave in more than one risky way. That difference held true even among those who reported more homeless episodes and those who had been on the streets longer.

Interestingly, the skills didn’t affect problem behaviors individually. Rather, each of the protective factors—setting goals, making healthy decisions and directly addressing rather than escaping from problems—reduced all three risky behaviors studied.

The authors conclude that teaching youth to solve problems and plan ahead are critical steps programs can take to keep young people from getting in trouble and coming to harm.

Additional references: The researchers used a variety of scales to measure different variables in this study that might be useful in screening and assessment of youth, including the following:

(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 this and other publications.)

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