Primary Sources: Does Homelessness Affect Youths' Development in Ways That Make It Harder for Them to Earn a Living?

A job interview.

“Cognitive Deficit and Mental Health in Homeless Transition-Age Youth” (abstract). Alice M. Saperstein, Seonjoo Lee, Elizabeth J. Ronan, Rachael S. Seeman and Alice Medalia. Pediatrics, Vol. 134, No. 1 (June 2014).

What it’s about: Saperstein, Lee, Ronan, Seeman and Medalia wanted to know whether homeless youth have higher rates of cognitive deficits and mental health concerns than their peers. They also wanted to learn how those issues might affect young people's ability to get and keep jobs. The researchers partnered with the youth-serving organization Covenant House New York to recruit 73 participants from the agency’s transitional living and employment support program.

The 18- to 22-year-old participants completed a variety of tests and interviews that looked at their mental health diagnoses, education and work histories, and levels of intellectual functioning. Young people who met the criteria for a clinical disorder like anxiety or depression also completed a neurocognitive assessment and reported on their mental health symptoms.

Why read it: Research shows that children with unstable living environments are more likely to become homeless later in life. They are also more likely to have impaired cognitive functioning in areas like language and memory. Without proper intervention, these changes to the brain can last a lifetime and hamper youths' development during the critical teen years, when they seek the knowledge and skills they need to live and work on their own.

Little research exists about the mental health and cognitive concerns faced by young adults experiencing homelessness, or about how those challenges may impact young people's vocational experiences. Learning about these issues can help agencies put homeless youth on a better path to independence by working cognitive skill-building into existing programs and services.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: Of the 67 participants who completed the study, nearly 85 percent received a mental health diagnosis based on criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition. Only about 20 percent of young people in the general population are affected by a current or past mental health diagnosis.

Of the 55 participants who completed a follow-up neurocognitive assessment, more than 60 percent scored low enough for the researchers to classify them as impaired. These participants tested lower than about 70 percent of their non-homeless peers in both working and verbal memory, which the authors described as key building blocks to the learning process.

In keeping with the requirements of the Covenant House program, most participants reported part-time work in fields like security, retail and food service. However, 84 percent of young people earned less than the $1,600 established by Covenant House as a monthly livable wage. And youth put only $87 per month on average into savings.  In an interesting twist, young people with low-level anxiety generally worked and earned more than other study participants, although that correlation disappeared as symptoms grew more severe.

Despite the findings on low-level anxiety, the authors write, results point to the overall negative effect of impaired cognition on the work outcomes of homeless young people with mental health disorders. More comprehensive interventions are needed in homeless youth-serving agencies, they say, to promote cognitive and mental health as components of youth well-being.

Additional reference: Learn more about cognitive and neurological deficits, mental health problems and youth employment in NCFY’s research library.

Read The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability’s "Professional Development: Knowledge, Skills, & Abilities" toolkit, a compilation of training materials for professionals providing workforce development to all youth, including those with disabilities. It has specific sections tailored to work with young people facing developmental challenges.

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

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