Q&A: Robin Petering on Homeless Youth and Gangs

Robin Petering

Robin Petering first encountered the “juggalos” – tattooed and street-named young fans of the non-mainstream band, Insane Clown Posse – about seven years ago, when she worked in Oregon drop-in centers for youth experiencing homelessness. Now a researcher at the University of Southern California School of Social Work in Los Angeles, Petering has gone on to study the group, who were named a “hybrid gang” by the FBI in 2011. Not only has she found that juggalos are overrepresented among homeless youth, she’s also working to build knowledge about homeless youth who are involved with gangs of all kinds. Her goal is to find the best ways for social service providers to assist them.

We spoke to Petering about the reasons some homeless youth become involved in gangs, the need to move away from a “criminal justice lens” when addressing young people’s involvement in gangs, and the high rates of trauma among juggalos.

NCFY: What are some of the reasons homeless youth become involved in gangs, street families, and other alternative communities?

Petering: Many youth grow up without access to traditional support – like school and family relationships. Developing these relationships with peers on the street is where they get a surrogate family or network of people who will provide basic social needs for youth from a disadvantaged background. A lot of youth in gangs come from dysfunctional families, witness violence in the neighborhood, become disconnected from the school system, and they look for street peers to connect with and find social support they may be missing elsewhere. For some youth gang researchers there is the idea that tight relationships with other street youth provide protection – real or perceived – from physical risk of being victimized by street peers and other perpetrators in the street environment.

NCFY: What motivated you to research this topic?

Petering: The way to intervene with gangs has typically been through a criminal justice or law enforcement approach, but in my opinion that doesn’t help the problem in the long run. We need a more “social work approach” to addressing youth’s needs. When a homeless youth is arrested or charged with a crime, it can perpetuate their homelessness, and it makes it more difficult for them to exit street life. We need more research on what the needs of these youth are in order to build preventative and effective interventions for youth that identify with gangs.

NCFY: What can youth workers do to provide safety and support to homeless youth involved in gangs?

Petering: The first thing to do is understand the reasons why a youth is in a gang. It could be result of childhood and a life trajectory of negative events, growing up in certain neighborhoods or having a dysfunctional family background. Then, it’s important to understand the barriers that accompany being identified by law enforcement as a gang-involved youth. For example, if a young person is charged with a misdemeanor crime in a court room and “gang member” is written on their file, through a policy known as “gang enhancements,” they can be sentenced more harshly.

There are homeless youth services and there are gang services, but we need more collaboration between the two. We are finding that gangs can arise from homelessness, and non-homeless youth in gangs also run the risk of becoming homeless because of justice involvement. Gang-involved youth are often disconnected from traditional support avenues. Peer leader interventions -- or training youth in a network to be peer leaders -- and gatekeeper identification -- or identifying youth’s subpopulations and the youth within those circles that could reach out to other youth to get them into services -- might be ways to really reach everyone who is at risk within a homeless youth network.

NCFY: From your work so far, what have you learned that might surprise people or that surprised you?

Petering: One of the main things about gangs we traditionally study is that they are geographical, and territory is a main theme. But juggalos are all over the country—they have Facebook, and are using technology. Meanwhile homeless youth are often transient, moving from city to city. One of my questions is, whether this identity as a juggalo, being part of a smaller group within a larger network, helps the transition in moving to another city.

Brief preliminary studies on data I recently presented at the American Public Health Association conference show that juggalos were more likely to be arrested, to have recently spent time in jail and to have experienced recent violence or fights—things we’d expect from the FBI threat. Yet they had also experienced more trauma, had gone through more physical and sexual abuse as a child, had witnessed violence in their communities, were more likely to have been in the foster care system, had higher rates of methamphetamine and heroin use and had higher rates of depression, suicide, and PTSD, compared to other homeless youth. This suggests to me that identification as a juggalo might not be the cause of the negative outcomes the FBI is honing in on; rather, identifying as a juggalo may be a result of experiencing trauma and finding other peers that have gone through similar trauma in the past.

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