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Research Roundup: What Leads Homeless Youth to Have Run-ins With the Law?

Three young men hanging out in a cement bunker.

For homeless youth, survival on the streets may mean committing criminal acts to obtain basic necessities like food and shelter. But is there more going on in what leads homeless youth to have run-ins with the law? Though there is sparse research on this subject, recent studies indicate that several factors affect a homeless youth’s risk for criminal behavior. To further explore the high rate of criminal justice involvement among runaway and homeless youth, we reviewed three studies that sought to identify possible risk factors, including substance use, length of time living on the streets and childhood trauma history.

Arrest Rates and How Long Youth Have Been Homeless

Kristin M. Ferguson and her research team sought to understand the factors that lead homeless youth to be arrested, and how these factors may differ among homeless youth from four very different cities. After interviewing 188 homeless young adults from Los Angeles, Denver, New Orleans and St. Louis, the research team learned that runaway and homeless youth report a much higher rate of arrests than is observed among youth in the general population. Also, the longer a youth experienced homelessness, the more likely they were to be transient, addicted to substances and engaged in survival strategies.

The researchers suggested that a housing first approach could reduce risk factors for youth, which could then serve to decrease the rate of arrests.

The Connection Between Substance Use and Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence

While studies have investigated the general association of substance use and criminal behavior among runaway and homeless youth, there has not yet been research specifically focused on the association of substance use with perpetrating physically violent behavior, property offenses or with physical or property victimization. Researchers Jessica A. Heerde and Sheryl A. Hemphill compared and contrasted results and patterns among various studies which, after screening for eligibility criteria, resulted in 13 relevant studies from the United States and Canada. The researchers' conclusions included the following:

  • Substance use was associated with both perpetrating and experiencing physically violent behavior and property offenses.
  • Homeless youth use a wide variety of substances, mostly from the depressant class of drugs (such as sedatives, hallucinogens, cannabinoids, and opiates), which have the effect of reducing anxiety, stress, pain and other uncomfortable feelings.
  • The widespread use of depressants suggests that youth experiencing homelessness use substances as a coping mechanism--as a form of self-medicating behavior.

Childhood Maltreatment and Involvement With the Criminal Justice System

Jamie R. Yoder and her research team were aware of research linking childhood maltreatment to later criminal behavior among runaway and homeless youth. They wanted to tease out exactly which types of childhood abuse predict criminality, and how substance use and survival behaviors may affect the association. The researchers interviewed 202 homeless youth to better understand how childhood trauma can influence pathways to criminal behavior. After controlling for risk factors such as substance use, associating with peers who also engage in criminal behaviors and engaging in survival behaviors, the resarchers found that the experience of childhood physical abuse greatly increased the likelihood that a homeless youth would be arrested and serve jail time.

The researchers discussed possible ways early childhood trauma is linked to criminal behavior in adolescence and young adulthood:

  • Childhood trauma increases the risk that youth will experience unresolved feelings, which may lead to poor coping skills and an inability to control one’s emotions, both of which may raise the risk of youth criminal behavior.
  • Having been physically abused increases the likelihood that a homeless youth will abuse alcohol. Drug abuse lowers youth’s inhibitions and increases their risk of engaging in criminal behavior; youth may also commit crimes to support their drug addiction.
  • Homeless youth who grew up in physically violent households may have learned that aggression is an appropriate approach to problem solving.

After reviewing findings from their own and other studies, the researchers recommended providing trauma-informed services, including screening for trauma history and trauma-related symptoms.

Take-Aways for Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs

  • The longer youth use substances, the more isolated they become. Substance abuse prevention and treatment is key to keeping youth connected to care, geographically stable and out of trouble with the law.
  • Trauma screening, treatment and trauma-informed care need to be practiced when providing services to runaway and homeless youth. Youth have histories that include both childhood and homelessness-related trauma.
  • Youth need connections to as many organizations and supportive adults as possible, to increase their success in recovering from trauma and/or substance abuse and securing stable housing.

Read the Articles

“Exploration of Arrest Activity among Homeless Young Adults in Four U.S. Cities” (abstract). Social Work Research, Vol. 36, No. 3 (September 2012).

A Systematic Review of Associations Between Perpetration of Physically Violent Behaviors and Property Offenses, Victimization and Use of Substances Among Homeless Youth” (abstract). Children and Youth Services Review, Vol. 44 (September 2014).

“Explaining Homeless Youths’ Criminal Justice Interactions: Childhood Trauma or Surviving Life on the Streets?” (abstract). Community Mental Health Journal, Vol. 50, No. 2 (February 2014).

(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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