Research Roundup: Three Ways Researchers Have Removed Hurdles to Studying Homeless Youth

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A young person walking up stairs.

If there’s one thing that everyone in the runaway and homeless youth field—from researchers to practitioners to policymakers to funders—agrees on, it’s that we need more and better research.

But studying homeless youth presents challenges for researchers. Homeless young people are often transient. They can be hard to identify. They are not a homogenous group.

Some researchers are finding innovative ways to overcome these obstacles and to expand and improve the research base. Three recent articles discuss approaches that could work for other researchers, as well as for program staff seeking to evaluate their work with runaway and homeless youth.

(Read NCFY's article on how programs can work with researchers.)

‘Framing’ the Issue

Typically, when social scientists want to study young people experiencing homelessness, they can’t just make list of potential participants. Instead, they develop a list of locations that homeless youth are likely to visit. The problem is that some young people may be included in the sample more than once.

What would be a better way to create a representative sample and avoid research bias? A group of researchers describes and analyzes the strategy they used to obtain a large probability sample of homeless youth in Los Angeles. Between 2008 and 2009, they collected data from youth they found at two types of locations in four parts of the city:  places where youth get social services (shelters, drop-in centers and transitional living programs) and outdoor places where youth hang out (such as parks and streets). They used a statistical “weighting” methodology to account for youth who might have been counted more than once.

The researchers say if cost, staffing or time had been an issue, they could have only gone to shelters and hangouts and still reached 98 to 99 percent of the youth they contacted with the larger “frame” they used. They also say that because the demographics of homeless youth can vary greatly across a city or region, it’s important to go outside the “service-rich” area where most youth might be found.

Communicating With Study Participants

Another concern for researchers (and social service providers) is how to stay in touch with homeless young people during studies that take place over a number of months or years. Not only are youth transient, but they don’t always have access to phones or computers.

During a 3-month randomized control study of a curriculum that targeted safety on the streets, researchers gave homeless young people pre-paid cell phones and collected information about how the youth preferred to be contacted. In a follow-up article, the researchers analyzed how well each mode of communication worked.

They found that phone calls and texts were generally better ways to stay in touch with youth than Facebook and email messages. The researchers also found three patterns among youth who stuck with the study.

  1. No matter how researchers contacted youth, youth often responded with texts.
  2. As the study went on, researchers had to contact youth more times before getting a response and used more types of communication.
  3. A good amount of the time, researchers connected with youth without using technology, either running into them at the shelter where the study was based or meeting at pre-arranged times.

Hiring Youth as Researchers

Some researchers who study young people experiencing homelessness have used the “participatory action research” approach. People similar to those being studied – for example, homeless youth – take part in one or more phases of a research project. Getting people involved in these ways can make study results more viable and useful.

Researchers from Pacific University in Forest Grove, OR, used this participatory approach for a focus-group study of services for homeless young people. The researchers believed it was important not only to get input from focus-group participants, but also to have the data analyzed by research assistants who understood the issues participants were talking about.

The researchers hired five youth who were getting services from a transitional living program or drop-in center. These research assistants were trained to analyze the content of interviews. They helped code transcripts for major themes and participated in meetings at which research team members presented and discussed their analyses.

In the conclusion of their study report, the researchers write that many of their findings confirm previous research, such as the need for programs to be flexible and to give youth a sense of belonging. “Yet, because youth analyzed the focus group data,” the authors write, “there is added validity to these findings.”

Read the Abstracts

“Strategies for Obtaining Probability Samples of Homeless Youth.” Daniela Golinelli, Joan S. Tucker, Gery W. Ryan and Suzanne L. Wenzel. Field Methods (online, September 18, 2014).

“Utilizing Technology for Longitudinal Communication With Homeless Youth.” Kimberly Bender, Stephanie Begun, Anne DePrince, Badiah Haffejee and Sarah Kaufmann. Social Work in Health Care, Vol. 53, No. 9 (2014)

“Asking for Directions: Partnering with Youth to Build the Evidence Base for Runaway and Homeless Youth Services.” Don Schweitzer, Chris Helmer, Lorna Lee, Matt Linderman, David Moore and Crystal Schwiegeraht. All CAS Faculty Scholarship, Paper 53 (January 1, 2013).

(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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