Primary Sources: How Do Homeless Youth Decide What's Safe?

Three homeless teens sit in a playground.

Managing Risk: Self-Regulation Among Homeless Youth” (abstract). Sue-Ann MacDonald, Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal (published online, May 2014).

What it’s about: Researcher Sue-Ann MacDonald conducted informal interviews with 12 homeless teen girls and 6 homeless teen boys over one to four years. The youth were 16 or 17 years old when the study began in 2006. The interviews were conducted in young people's own “territory”: outside a youth shelter, on the street, and by email and phone.

MacDonald’s ultimate goal was to understand how these 18 young people thought about and responded to risk.

Why read it: While most studies examine risk as a systemic issue, this study delves into the nuances of how individual homeless young people think about risk. Family and youth workers could use this information to create conditions in which youth can recognize and draw on their strengths and supports, rather than simply reacting to circumstances.  

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: MacDonald found that when the young people made decisions in their daily lives, personal experience and intuition mattered more than expert advice or social expectations.

For example, in a conversation about sexual health one young woman said she didn’t see the need for any form of birth control. Later, after becoming pregnant and contracting three sexually transmitted infections, the young woman reassessed her situation and began to use birth control.

Other interviewees told similar stories related to drugs, relationship violence and other issues. Time and again, MacDonald writes, “self-regulation was fashioned from individual experience.” To illustrate her point, MacDonald describes a young woman who is "strongly invested in projecting her image as a 'responsible' drug user" who never shares needles and only injects drugs in safe locations. A counselor, MacDonald implies, will need a different approach than convincing her of the danger of what she's doing.

In the case of this young woman and others like her, focusing on risk itself and trying to convince young people to aspire to normalcy or safety is unlikely to be successful, MacDonald suggests. Instead, she recommends that social service workers recognize the barriers homeless youth face, respect their view of the world, and help them reach a place of personal integrity and stability where they can make constructive decisions.

Additional references: Find abstracts of other literature on self-regulation in our digital library.

Another recent study found that certain factors at home correlated to young women’s sexual risk-taking. The “R” in the Hollywood Homeless Youth Partnership’s ARC curriculum stands for self-regulation, and the curriculum includes steps for building this quality in at-risk young people.  

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

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