Primary Sources: Taking Stock of What We Know About Youth Homelessness

Photograph of a teen looking thoughtful.

"The Mental and Physical Health of Homeless Youth: A Literature Review" (abstract). Child Psychiatry & Human Development, Vol. 43, No. 3 (2012).

What it’s about: Youth homelessness has proven difficult to study and remains not well understood by social scientists or by the communities that could provide services to these highly vulnerable young people. In an effort to focus and guide future research and practice, researchers at the University of Chicago reviewed more than a hundred studies to take stock of what is known about youth homelessness and identify unanswered questions.

Why read it: The research on youth homelessness can be confusing and sometimes contradictory. For example, different studies have estimated that the percentage of homeless youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ranges from 20 to 40 percent. Studies about mental health find that anywhere from 35 to 76 percent of homeless youth may suffer from multiple psychiatric disorders. This easy-to-read review of the literature lays out what we know about homeless youth while also explaining why much of that information may not be useful for understanding the larger picture of youth homelessness.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: The authors grouped the studies they reviewed into four main categories: (1) causes of youth homelessness; (2) characterizations of homeless youth and the implications of youth homelessness; (3) healthcare; and (4) prevention and intervention programs.  They found:

  • Factors contributing to youth homelessness include family breakdown, disruptive family relationships, and trauma and abuse. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth and foster youth are at particular risk for homelessness.
  • Cognitive development, academic achievement, and health all appear to be negatively affected by homelessness, and violence and trauma are increased. However, it isn’t clear to what degree these negative outcomes cause homelessness or are caused by homelessness.
  • Despite high rates of substance use, medical problems and psychiatric disorders, homeless youth are often unwilling to seek professional help and have difficulty accessing adequate, developmentally-appropriate and affordable health care.
  • Few prevention and intervention studies have been conducted, and many of these studies are considered of poor quality, based on the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Work Group rating system, which assesses the definition of the intervention, the use of an appropriate control group, random assignment and the soundness of the measures, among other factors.

A major limitation of existing research, the authors say, is that there is inconsistency in how different social scientists define “homeless” and “youth.”  Researchers have also tended to conduct studies with survey and assessment tools pulled together from multiple sources, which can limit the validity and usefulness of their results.

Additional References: For a list of types of studies listed by degree of scientific rigor, read NCFY’s article “Types of Quantitative Research.” A previous study, "The Heterogeneity of Homeless Youth in America: Examining Typologies," sought to more accurately define homeless youth and create a road map for determining what types of services they need. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness's National Research Agenda will include efforts to better count the number of homeless youth and define their characteristics and needs.

(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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