Primary Sources: How Do Homeless Youth Define Trauma and Its Impact on Them?

A young woman looking down.

“Trauma Among Street-Involved Youth” (abstract). Kimberly A. Bender, Sanna J. Thompson, Kristin M. Ferguson, Jamie R. Yoder and Leah Kern. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, Vol. 22, No. 1 (March 2014).

What it’s about: Researchers studied experiences of trauma among 18- to 24-year-olds who had been homeless in Los Angeles, Denver and Austin, TX. The 145 participants answered open-ended interview questions and completed questionnaires that asked about the traumatic events they'd experienced and how the events affected them.

Why read it: Research suggests that many youth who experience homelessness have faced traumatic events, such as sexual abuse and family violence, at home. These traumatic circumstances that lead some youth to run may also increase their likelihood of experiencing violence and abuse later, both on and off the streets. Youth who go through many traumatic experiences may develop post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms that make it hard for them to seek help from people and institutions, like social service providers.

By listening to what homeless youth say about trauma, this research aims to shed light on what it might take to gain young people's trust and meet their needs.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: More than three-quarters of participants had experienced some sort of trauma, either before or after becoming homeless. And most young people experienced more than one type of traumatic event: four distinct types of trauma, on average, while living with their families and three distinct types, on average, after leaving. The most frequently cited types of experiences on the streets included sudden death of a close friend or loved one, witnessing a severe assault, experiencing a physical assault by an acquaintance or stranger, seeing someone overdose on drugs, and being threatened with death or serious bodily harm.

More than one quarter of youth had symptoms that met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.

When asked what they thought of when hearing the word “trauma,” nearly 40 percent of youth described physical, sexual or verbal abuse they encountered at home. Sixty percent described violent incidents from their time on the streets. Nearly one-third defined trauma as simply being homeless.

Young people also recognized the impact of traumatic experiences on their physical and mental health and their interactions with others. One youth said, “It’s hard for me to trust people. It’s hard for me to get along with people now. ... I’m just not that nice person that I used to be.”

Youth voiced a strong need for independence. At the same time, many said they felt safer at a youth shelter or other housing program, compared to being on their own. The authors say many youth feel a "push-pull" between wanting a safe environment and being afraid to let their guard down with agency staff. The antidote, the researchers say, is for service providers to have patience and be ready to support youth when they are ready.

Programs should also take young people’s living situations into account, the authors say. For example, trying to reduce young people's "hypervigilance" while they still live on the street may make them more vulnerable to violence and other dangers.

Additional references: Find abstracts of other literature on trauma and homeless youth in our digital library

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers a fact sheet on complex trauma for service providers working with homeless young people (99KB, PDF). The NCTSN website also organizes resources by topic and population, including children, youth and families experiencing homelessness.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

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