How Is Teen Pregnancy Different for Homeless Youth?

Pregnant young woman.

The Paradox of Homeless Youth Pregnancy: A Review of Challenges and Opportunities” (abstract). Stephanie Begun. Social Work in Health Care, Vol. 54, No. 5 (March 2015).

What it’s about: In this literature review, researcher Stephanie Begun looks into the causes and risk factors associated with pregnancy among homeless youth. For example, she discusses a small, but recurring trend of young women who seek pregnancy and parenting as possible solutions to their challenges. Begun also describes the negative effects of pregnancy on homeless youth more generaly, including emotions, actions, and behaviors that can stem from news of a pregnancy as well as common parenting challenges.

Why read it: Pregnancy rates among homeless youth are as much as five times higher than rates among their housed peers, Begun writes. Although attitudes toward pregnancy and related behaviors have been well-studied among teens in general, very little research has focused on homeless youth specifically. This review seeks to understand homeless young people’s complex reproductive and sexual health needs when it comes to pregnancy and parenting.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Begun’s review identifies multiple perceptions, causes, and risks associated with homeless youth pregnancies:

Pro-pregnancy Attitudes: According to Begun’s review, studies suggest that some homeless youth intentionally seek to become pregnant in order to:

  • Access health care and other needed social services.
  • Maintain or improve relationships with a partner.
  • Feel loved and needed by another person, or to be “better” parents than their own parents and guardians.
  • Feel motivated to make positive life changes like stopping drug and alcohol use.

Survival Sex: Studies estimate that 10 to 50 percent of homeless youth engage in survival sex, or the exchange of sex for food, clothing, or shelter. Some female homeless youth report engaging in survival sex to provide for their child(ren), Begun writes, and the majority report inconsistent or no use of birth control during survival sex, potentially leading to repeat pregnancies.

HIV and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs): Homeless youth who engage in survival sex are more likely to contract HIV or others STIs, according to the studies reviewed. Additionally, the research showed that homeless youth have higher rates of HIV than their housed peers, even if they do not engage in survival sex.

Relationship Strain and Violence: Young homeless couples often experience deep strains on their relationships in cases where one partner desires pregnancy and the other does not, studies report. This disagreement can sometimes lead to physical violence.

Parenting Challenges: Many homeless mothers also report shifting from positive to negative attitudes toward pregnancy after giving birth, including sadness over losing their own childhood years to parenting or stress over raising their child(ren) in a shelter environment.

The author concludes that traditional pregnancy prevention strategies—which often focus on reducing the number of unintended pregnancies—may be missing the mark when considering the complex reproductive and sexual health needs and attitudes of homeless youth. More work is needed, Begun writes, to test and adapt evidence-based sexual and reproductive health interventions for this unique population.

Additional references: Look for more articles about homeless and pregnant youth and pregnancy attitudes in NCFY’s research library.

You can also read research summaries like "Research Roundup: New Information About Homeless Youth and Unprotected Sex."

If you seek information on working with pregnant and parenting youth, take a look at “6 Tips for Connecting with Pregnant and Parenting Teens.”

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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