Homeless Youth Likely to Abuse Substances with Those Exhibiting Mix of Risky Behaviors

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A young woman sits on outdoor steps.

Shared Risk: Who Engages in Substance Use With American Homeless Youth?” Harold D. Green Jr, Kayla de la Haye, Joan S. Tucker, and Daniela Golinelli. Addiction, Vol. 108, No. 9 (September 2013).

What it’s about: Researchers Green, de la Haye, Tucker, and Golinelli of the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, were interested in exploring the potential of peer-led anti-drinking and drug use programs for homeless youth. Since homeless youth often have drinkers and drug users in their networks of friends and acquaintances, the researchers wondered if it would be a challenge to find peers who could lead such programs. To determine which types of young people might be able to help other youth change their behaviors, Green and his colleagues decided to investigate who homeless youth drink and do drugs with. The researchers surveyed 419 homeless 13- to 24-year-olds at several dozen shelters, drop-in centers, and street hangouts in Los Angeles County.

Why read it: Compared to young people with stable housing, homeless youth are more likely to drink and use drugs. And they are often disconnected from their families and schools, two settings in which anti-drinking and drug use programs often occur.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Homeless youth in the study were likely to drink or do drugs with people they knew who did a combination of risky things, like having risky sex and also using drugs or drinking in excess.

Youth were more likely to do drugs and drink with people they met on the street, particularly men, rather than with family members or people they knew who had jobs. They were also more likely to do drugs or drink with a sex partner, someone they were frequently in touch with, someone who provided social support, or someone who was popular in their social networks.

Green et al. suggest that microenterprise interventions, or programs that that facilitate relationship-building between homeless youth and positive role models who do not drink or use drugs, could be effective. However, while the study’s findings reinforce the idea that family members and employed friends and acquaintances can be good role models, the authors also suggest homeless youth’s social networks are complex.

They write: “Recruiting peer leaders for interventions based on [their] potentially ‘influential’ social roles may not be as clear-cut in homeless populations [as in housed populations], given the tendency for these individuals to endorse the behaviors we hope they will prevent.”

Additional references: Look for more research on drug use and drinking among homeless youth and engaging homeless youth as peer leaders in NCFY’s research library.

We summarized research on what can be done to reduce drinking and drug use among homeless youth.

We also compared three evidence-based practices that are often used to reduce substance use.

Some protective factors, such as being employed, are complex for homeless youth, according to other research.

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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