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Primary Sources: Can 'Natural Mentors' Protect Homeless Youth From Behaving in Risky Ways?

A young woman selecting paint swatches with a trusted adult.

Exploring Protective Factors Among Homeless Youth: The Role of Natural Mentors.” Michelle T. Dang, Katherine J. Conger, Joshua Breslau and Elizabeth Miller. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, Vol. 25, No. 3 (August 2014).

What it’s about: Researchers surveyed 197 homeless young people ages 14 to 21 from community agencies and school districts in Northern California to find out if they have adult mentors in their lives other than their parents. When youth do have “natural mentors,” the researchers wanted to know, how do those allies affect youths’ decisions about using substances, having sex and breaking the law? And, how do mentors affect the way young people view their social supports and mental health? In particular, the researchers wanted to explore the protective impact of ongoing, supportive relationships and the potential ill effects of mentors who engage in negative behaviors such as stealing and drug abuse.

Why read it: Permanent connections is one of the four outcomes promoted by the Family and Youth Services Bureau's Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs. Because many homeless youth move from place to place, structured mentoring programs may not be a good fit for them. But many youth have connections to adults who are important to them. One nationally representative study of adolescents found that 73 percent had relationships with important non-parental adults. The same young people also reported higher self-esteem, less gang involvement and increased likelihood of attending college.

Better understanding the potential impact of so-called natural mentors—both positive and negative—can help family- and youth-serving programs make more informed decisions as they consider incorporating them into existing programs for homeless young people.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: As in the national study of adolescents, nearly three-quarters of participants in this study reported having natural mentors.

  • Nearly half of the mentors were identified as older siblings or extended families.
  • Most young people described mentors as “like a parent” or a “role model.”
  • Twenty percent said they connected with their natural mentors daily.

Young people with a natural mentor reported higher satisfaction with the level of social support they felt they had. They were also more likely to attend school despite unstable living situations. Mentors contributed more to feelings of support than the participants’ parents or peers.

Despite these strong connections, the only type of behavior mentors appeared to have a significant impact on was young people’s sexual behaviors. Mentors reduced young people’s tendency to engage in risky behaviors and increased the likelihood of their protecting themselves, for example by using condoms.

The researchers had hypothesized that young people would be likely to mimic mentors’ “problem” behaviors. The hypothesis was not supported by the data, though the authors caution that 10 percent of participants did not answer questions about their mentors’ negative activities.  

In light of these findings, the authors say, agencies should consider working with young people to find adults they can turn to for support or to strengthen existing connections. But be sure to vet potential mentors, the authors say, to reduce young people’s chances of being negatively influenced by someone they see as a role model.

Additional references: Look for more articles on mentoring in NCFY’s research library.

You can also learn about an emerging natural mentor program being piloted among Philadelphia youth in foster care.

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

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