Research Roundup: Connections Between Drug Use and Violence, Trauma Among Homeless Youth

A young man.

In August, we shared a study that explored drinking and drug use among homeless youth as a way to detach from their experiences with violence on the street. Here, we ask whether drug use is linked with youth's increased risk of witnessing, experiencing, or perpetrating violence or other traumatic events among strangers and those they know. Three recent studies examine the link between homeless young people's drug habits and multiple types of violence and trauma—including intimate partner violence, robbery, physical and sexual assault, loss of a loved one, drug overdose, and risky sexual behaviors.

Emerging Connections Between Drug Use, Violence, and Traumatic Events

Researcher Kimberly Bender and her colleagues interviewed 601 homeless youth from Los Angeles, Denver, and Austin to ask about their recent substance use and experiences with violence. The researchers divided participants into three categories: those who rarely experienced or witnessed violence or traumatic events, including a drug overdose; those who witnessed threats, physical attacks, or the death of a close friend; and those who experienced or witnessed high levels of violence or traumatic events on a regular basis.

The study found that participants who witnessed or experienced violence more frequently used alcohol and drugs more than those with fewer encounters. The findings did not specify, however, whether drug use prompted or resulted from those occurrences. Because of the overlap between drug use and violence, the authors recommend that youth-serving agencies increase their screening for both, as well as related mental health symptoms. Ideally, they say, youth should receive treatment for victimization and substance abuse recovery at the same time.

For Some Drugs, a Stronger Link Than Others

Despite the emerging connections between drug use and violence, few studies have explored the impact of specific types of drugs on relationship violence among homeless youth. Led by Robin Petering, researchers from the University of Southern California School of Social Work developed a questionnaire for 238 homeless youth who said they had been in a sexual relationship during the past year. Participants answered questions about whether they had used or experienced violence (or both) and if they had taken methamphetamine, powder cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, or crack cocaine in the last 30 days. Youth who reported using—or both using and experiencing—violence were more likely to have taken methamphetamine and/or ecstasy. Both drugs are classified as psychostimulants, the authors write, and prior studies have shown that they are linked to aggression.

A Need for More Research

Researchers Jessica A. Heerde and Sheryl A. Hemphill were also interested in learning more about the link between drug and alcohol use and sexual violence. The duo conducted a review of 23 studies of homeless youth ages 12 to 24 that included information about their substance use and experiences committing acts of sexual violence, being the victim of sexual violence, or engaging in risky sexual behavior.

The authors were surprised to discover that most studies focused on sexual health risks, rather than exploring whether substance-using homeless youth were more likely to commit or fall victim to sexual violence. Results also varied greatly from study to study, making it difficult for the authors to draw conclusions from previous findings. Heerde and Hemphill recommend that future studies focus on sexual violence more specifically, including if and how homeless youth use drugs as a form of coping with violent encounters.

Read the Articles

Substance Use Predictors of Victimization Profiles Among Homeless Youth: A Latent Class Analysis (abstract). Kimberly Bender, Sanna Thompson, Kristin Ferguson, and Lisa Langenderfer. Journal of Adolescence, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2014.

Bidirectional Intimate Partner Violence and Drug Use Among Homeless Youth (abstract). Robin Petering, Harmony Rhoades, Eric Rice, and Amanda Yoshioka-Maxwell. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, electronically published 2015.

Sexual Risk Behaviors, Sexual Offenses, and Sexual Victimization Among Homeless Youth: A Systematic Review of Associations With Substance Use (abstract). Jessica A. Heerde and Sheryl A. Hemphill. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, electronically published 2015.

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

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