What are the Experiences and Needs of Homeless Youth with a History of Foster Care?

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Teenage Girl carrying a rucksack

Experiences and Needs of Homeless Youth with a History of Foster Care” (abstract). Kimberly Bender, Jessica Yang, Kristin Ferguson, and Sanna Thompson. Children and Youth Services Review, Vol. 55 (2015).

What it’s about: Researcher Kimberly Bender and her colleagues wanted to understand the experiences of homeless youth with a history of foster care compared to those who hadn't spent time in foster care, and what those youth say they need. To find out, they surveyed 601 young people, ages 18 to 24, who had had contact with homeless youth-serving agencies in Los Angeles, Denver, and Austin, Texas. Approximately one-third of the sample had a history of foster care. 

Why read it: Research tells us that former foster youth often become homeless for a least one night, a result that may be influenced by unmet needs related to education, employment, and physical and mental health. Still, few studies have focused on youth with a history of foster care once they become homeless, given the challenge of connecting with this group, the authors write. Through this study, Bender and her colleagues aim to inform programs and services for these young people before and after their transition from foster care.

Biggest takeaways: The researchers reported few differences between participants in terms of demographics, housing, trauma, education, and employment, regardless of whether or not they had been in foster care. However, homeless youth with a history of foster care reported more instances of childhood physical abuse, physical neglect, and sexual abuse. They also reported being homeless for approximately three years on average, a full year longer than youth without foster care experience. Bender et al. shared the following factors that may have contributed to this longer timeframe:

  • Older age
  • Increased exposure to physical neglect
  • Moving around more
  • Staying with a friend, relative, or in a jail or detention facility

Although roughly half of participants with foster care experience had been housed in the six months before the study, the majority had experienced trauma on the streets, including physical and sexual assault. These experiences, the authors say, can negatively impact young people's mental health. Only 19.5% had full-time jobs, and only 45% had a high school diploma or GED. Most youth associated with friends who used substances, and many met the criteria for substance use disorder, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Bender et al. emphasize that while all homeless youth have significant needs, youth from foster care in particular need access to stable housing, education, employment, mental health care, and substance use services. Their study's findings can be used to support more effective programs for meeting these needs, they write, and for considering such issues before youth exit foster care.

Additional references: Look for more articles about homelessness and foster care or needs of youth in foster care in our digital library.

See what states and child welfare leaders can do to help foster youth in their transition to adulthood.

You can also read about a partnership between the Family and Youth Services Bureau’s Transitional Living Program (TLP) and the Children’s Bureau’s Chafee Foster Care Independence Program (CFCIP).

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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