Why Are Some Homeless Youth Positive in the Face of Adversity?

Cheerful homeless young people.

“The Impact of Psychosocial Factors on Subjective Well-Being Among Homeless Young Adults,” Amanda N. Barczyk, Sanna J. Thompson and Lynn Rew. Health & Social Work, Vol. 39, No. 3 (August 2014).

What it’s about: Researchers Amanda N. Barczyk, Sanna J. Thompson and Lynn Rew wanted to explore what contributes to a personal sense of well-being (or lack thereof) among young adults experiencing homelessness. They asked 185 homeless 18- to 23-year-olds using a Texas drop-in center to complete a questionnaire about their happiness and life satisfaction. Participants, all of whom were known to drink or use drugs, also answered questions about their experiences on the street, levels of perceived social support and expectations about the future.

Why read it: Despite the many challenges homeless youth face, some studies suggest many of them have a better sense of well-being than other youth, possibly because of their sense of personal freedom and strong social networks on the street. Why do some youth feel positive about themselves and their lives in the face of adversity? Understanding the answer to that question can help family and youth workers recognize and build upon young people’s individual strengths—rather than only addressing their problems—as they work to achieve more stable outcomes.

Biggest takeaways from the research: To gauge young people's sense of well-being, researchers adapted a six-item scale originally used to measure distress. Instead, the researchers asked about feelings of tranquility, cheerfulness and hope. Participants ranked how often they experienced those feelings.

Participants who scored higher on the well-being scale also reported high levels of social support, more optimistic expectations for the future and a better sense of the flow of time. Young people who felt less control over their futures also scored lower on the well-being scale, the authors say.

Gender and time on the street also seemed to make a difference, with young men who spent half of each day or less on the street reporting higher levels of well-being than other participants. Young men may feel less worried about physical or sexual abuse on the streets than young women do and, by extension, more in charge of their environments, the authors say.

The researchers say their study had several limitations. The questionnaires had to be brief and suitable for reading out loud to accommodate possible deficits in young people’s reading abilities and attention spans. And because participants were recruited from a drop-in center, the sample of young people studied only includes those who sought out services and were not drunk or high at the time the information gathering was done.

Still, the authors point to some practical applications of the study, particularly for young men. It may be a good idea for family and youth workers to ask homeless youth about their close friendships and views of the future, for example, as a way to identify individual strengths. Helping young people recognize their internal strengths and focusing on positive views they have, the authors write, can foster a greater sense of well-being and motivate youth to make positive change.

Additional references: Look for more articles on youth well-being and social support networks in NCFY’s research library.

Read about ways youth- and family-serving organizations promote well-being, and listen to our podcast about unique ways young people stay healthy and happy after living on the streets.

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

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