Primary Sources: Do Emergency Shelters Promote Positive Development for Homeless Youth?

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Photograph of a diverse group of teens leaning on a sofa.

Beyond a Bed: Support for Positive Development for Youth Residing in Emergency Shelters” (abstract). Children and Youth Services Review, Vol. 35, No. 2 (February 2013). 

What it’s about: Researchers from the University of Michigan surveyed 51 girls and 31 boys, ages 12 to 19, to see whether staying in an emergency shelter positively affected their social and emotional well-being. Each young person stayed at a shelter for a short time, about 12 days on average. The researchers compared their results to a control group of non-homeless youth from the Developmental Asset Profile field trials conducted in 2011 by the Search Institute, a nonprofit research organization that promotes PYD.

Why read it: The Family and Youth Services Bureau supports Positive Youth Development, or PYD, the idea that positive opportunities, along with guidance and support from caring adults, can promote young people's social and emotional well-being. This study investigates whether emergency shelters for runaway and homeless youth promote PYD in the short amount of time young people stay there. It is one of few studies specifically looking at PYD outcomes among homeless youth.

Biggest takeaways for youth workers: Though this study is small, it suggests that the supportive, structured atmosphere of emergency shelters can make a difference in runaway and homeless youths' self-perceptions, their relationships with others and their well-being.

The authors measured young people's external assets (defined as strength-building experiences and relationships in young people's families, schools and communities) and internal assets (defined as the values, skills and self-perceptions of each individual youth) when they entered a shelter, during their stays and at the time they left. The survey also measured young people's psychological functioning and distress, general life satisfaction, healthy and unhealthy behaviors, satisfaction with the program, relationships with their parents or caregivers, and how well they functioned at school.

Young people entering the shelter had far fewer external and internal assets than the control group. Over time, their assets increased. Youth who completed more than one survey had much less distress and greater life satisfaction by the middle of their stays. They also had improved their feelings of positive identity, commitment to learning, health behavior, and relationships with female caregivers by the time they left the shelters.

So what led to the changes? The researchers say it may be that youth who stay in shelters build positive relationships with staff and get support that they lack in their daily lives. That support, along with the structure of an emergency shelter, may make it possible for youth to feel better about themselves and to make positive changes in their behavior and relationships outside the shelter.

Additional references: Among the tools the researchers used to measure young people’s assets and psychological function were the Developmental Assets Profile, the General Health Questionnaire, the Students' Life Satisfaction Scale, the Personal Lifestyle Questionnaire, and the Client Satisfaction Questionnaire (CSQ-8).

One of NCFY’s most popular publications, “Putting Positive Youth Development Into Action” gives an in-depth introduction to PYD. We also have a free online course on PYD.

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

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