Primary Sources: What Motivates Homeless Youth to Stay on the Streets?

Photograph of a teen girl standing on the street.

“A Paradox of Street Survival: Street Masteries Influencing Runaways’ Motivations to Maintain Street Life” (abstract; PDF, 185KB). Theory in Action, Vol. 5, No. 3 (2012).

What it’s about: This study explores what motivates young people to continue living on the street, despite the challenges and danger of doing so. The author looked at a mid-90s survey of 322 youth, ages 13 to 21, who were living on the streets of Seattle. He used the data to gauge how survival tactics like stealing and dumpster diving, along with personal values and discomfort, might impact young people's decision to stay.

Why read it: To offer effective services to runaway and homeless youth, social service providers need to understand what they actually want. This study adds to the small body of research about the characteristics of homeless young people.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: Of the young people sampled, less than 50 percent said they were strongly motivated to leave the streets. And the more young people used the streets to meet their basic needs, the less motivated they were to leave. Conversely, young people who reported feeling hungry or exhausted, or said they preferred more traditional values like cleanliness and honesty, showed greater interest in finding a stable living arrangement.

When designing drop-in, outreach and shelter programs, youth workers may want to consider that youth may have a wide range of motivations. Understanding the reasons young people don’t want to live in a more stable environment may also help staff identify opportunities to ease their concerns. Youth may value the sense of personal control they feel living on the street, the author writes, or remember feeling alone and powerless living with their families. The author also encourages youth workers to validate the resilience of young people surviving on the street, and to show how the skills they’ve gained can translate into a less risky environment.

Additional references: To learn more about translating street skills into life skills, read our article “From The Street to the Office: Helping Homeless Youth Recognize Their Workplace Potential.” We also shared some of the main reasons youth leave home in a recent research roundup.

(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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