Linking Homeless Youth to Services: A Look at the Impact of Shelter and Drop-in Programs

Happy diverse young people.

A Test of Outreach and Drop-in Linkage Versus Shelter Linkage for Connecting Homeless Youth to Services” (abstract). Natasha Slesnick, Xin Feng, Xiamei Guo, Brittany Brakenhoff, Jasmin Carmona, Aaron Murnan, Scottye Cash, and Annie-Laurie McRee. Prevention Science, published online January 2016.

What it’s about: Slesnick et al. wanted to see how well homeless youth shelters engage residents in social services compared to outreach and drop-in programs that do not offer living space. They selected 79 homeless youth, ages 14 to 24, who were not receiving services and connected them to strengths-based interventions in Columbus, Ohio. Of these participants, 40 were linked to a drop-in center, and 39 were linked to a shelter. The research team assessed a number of factors related to participants' health and well-being at the beginning of the study, and at three, six, and nine months.

Why read it: Studies show that homeless youth are at greater risk than homeless adults for risky sexual behaviors, barriers to accessing needed health care, substance abuse, and mental health problems, Slesnick et al. write. Unlike previous studies focused on young people connected to service providers, this study includes the least-studied group of homeless youth—those who are not already engaged in services. Previous research suggests that connecting young people to needed services may positively impact their ability to exit homelessness, the authors write. Understanding the outcomes of this disconnected group is therefore an important step in ending youth homelessness.

Biggest takeaways from the research: In addition to assessing their access to services, researchers asked participants about their experiences with drug and alcohol use, history of sexual abuse, sense of self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or to accomplish a task), physical and mental health, and HIV-related knowledge and risk behaviors.

Compared to youth in shelters, youth connected to drop-in programs received more services such as HIV prevention and counseling and treatment for substance use. Youth in both programs showed progress reducing the number of days they drank to get drunk, as well as learning more about HIV. Young people using drop-in programs reported these benefits more quickly, however, than those living in shelters.

Youth in both groups also reported experiencing a number of outcomes at roughly the same rate, including:

  • Fewer days of alcohol use
  • Fewer days using more than one substance
  • Increased self-efficacy
  • Increased general physical and mental health
  • Decreased depressive symptoms (although female participants experienced this change more quickly than male participants, on average)

Additionally, young people's histories of abuse impacted their progress, regardless of the type of program they used. Youth who reported a history of sexual abuse, for example, decreased marijuana use at an even faster rate than those who did not report sexual abuse. Similarly, young people with a history of emotional abuse reduced their HIV risk behaviors more than those who did not report similar experiences.

Additional references: Look for more articles on street outreach and emergency shelters in NCFY’s research library.

Read our summary of another study led by Slesnick to compares three interventions for homeless substance-using youth.

You can also listen to our podcast on how street outreach experience can benefit communities' ;annual point-in-time counts.

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