What Buffers Homeless Youth Against Trauma, Drinking, and Drug Use?

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A sad looking young man.

Factors Associated With Substance Use Disorders Among Traumatized Homeless Youth” (abstract). Sanna J. Thompson, Kimberly Bender, Kristin M. Ferguson, and Yeonwoo Kim. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, Vol. 15, No. 1 (2015).

What it’s about: Researchers surveyed 601 homeless 18- to 24-year-olds to find out what factors kept young people from experiencing the trauma and substance use often associated with homelessness. The youth had stayed away from home for at least two weeks during the month prior to the interview and were receiving services in Denver, Austin, or Los Angeles.

Why read it: Prior research shows that homeless youth use substances at high rates. Most studies have focused on the risk factors that often accompany homeless youth’s drug use, the authors say. This study sought to identify not only risk factors, but also to reveal which protective factors, or “individual and environmental conditions that decrease the likelihood of problem behaviors or buffer the effects of risk,” are effective for homeless youth, Thompson et al. write.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Thompson and her colleagues found that the following risk factors were linked to homeless youth’s problematic drinking or drug use:

  • Having been homeless for a longer period of time, having been in jail before, and illegal or marginally legal methods of earning income such as panhandling, selling drugs, and engaging in survival sex were all linked with drug problems, but not with drinking problems.
  • Moving frequently from place to place was linked with excessive drinking, but not drug problems. The authors suggest excessive drinking might serve as a way to fit in with other street youth in a new city or to cope with the stress of moving to a new city.
  • Engaging in “avoidant-focused coping” (disengaging or detaching from reality) and experiencing or witnessing violence on the street were linked with both excessive drinking and drug problems.

The authors found that youth who felt a sense of personal competence and those who sought support from peers or trusted adults to deal with stress had fewer drinking and drug problems.

Surprisingly, two factors the authors expected to be protective based on previous studies were instead linked to excessive drinking or drug problems for this sample of homeless youth, the authors say.

  • Making money legally, while not associated with drug problems, was linked with excessive drinking.
  • Accepting oneself and one’s life was linked with both excessive drinking and drug problems.

Thompson and her colleagues raise the question of whether the existing risk and resilience frameworks are too simplistic to explain drug and alcohol problems among homeless youth. They suggest that those designing interventions for homeless youth take the complexity of young people's situations into account.

This study represents a snapshot of homeless youths’ outcomes at a single point in time, so the authors could not determine causal relationships between risk and protective factors and drinking and drug problems. Studies done over time, the authors say, could tell us more about the issues young people face.

Additional references: Look for more research on drug use among homeless youth and risk and protective factors in NCFY’s research library.

The researchers used subscales from the Resilience Scale to measure personal competence, and the Coping Scale (adolescent version also available) to assess social coping and other coping methods.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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