How do Homeless Young Men and Women Cope Differently with Adversity and Generating Income?

A young person with cash in their jeans pocket.

Gender, Coping Strategies, Homelessness Stressors, and Income Generation among Homeless Young Adults in Three Cities (abstract). Kristin M. Ferguson, Kimberly Bender, and Sanna J. Thompson. Social Science and Medicine, Vol. 135 (2015).

What it’s about: Kristin Ferguson, Kimberly Bender, and Sanna Thompson wanted to know how gender differences are related to homeless youth’s stressors and coping strategies and their types of employment (i.e., legal or illegal). To find out, they interviewed 601 young people, ages 18 to 24, who had contact with homeless youth-serving agencies in Los Angeles, Denver, and Austin, Texas between March, 2010 and July, 2011.

Why read it: Homeless young men and women respond differently to the myriad stressors that come with an unstable living situation and income generation, Ferguson et al. write. Therefore, they may have different needs and require different physical, mental, and behavioral health services.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Most research shows that problem-focused coping (i.e., dealing with problems by directly thinking about the issues and how to resolve them) leads to better mental and physical health among homeless youth than avoidant coping strategies, Ferguson et al. write, although some researchers have found both strategies to be helpful.

Ferguson et al. found that problem-focused coping was protective against risk factors such as criminal behavior, mental illness, and substance use. In addition, homeless young adults who earned income from legal sources used more problem-focused and fewer avoidant coping strategies. Social coping (i.e., turning to one’s peers for social support, or isolating oneself from peers as a form of coping) was less common among homeless youth in this study. Those who used this coping strategy were more likely to engage in illegal activity regardless of gender.

However, some gender-based differences arose.

  • Greater use of problem-focused coping strategies was linked to both legal and illegal income generation among females, but there was no significant link among males. Characteristics of problem-focused coping like high cognitive functioning and self-reliance may particularly aid females in thriving in both legal employment and in surviving on the streets, which Ferguson et al. say have been defined as a place where males hold greater power and thus have fewer problems to solve.
  • Females with higher rates of transience had more diverse involvement in legal activities, while males with higher rates of transience had more diverse involvement in illegal activities. Ferguson et al. suggest that for females, transience may be due to opportunities to exit homelessness through jobs or housing in another city, while for males it may signify their becoming more entrenched in homelessness. It is important to consider the reason for transience, the authors write, and to respond in ways that ensure the safest transitions for youth.

  • Both depression and substance use disorder were linked to illegal income generation in males, but not in females. It may be that young men are more attracted to short-term work such as day labor because they can better cope with their depression and substance use symptoms on a short-term basis, Ferguson et al. write.

Ferguson et al. suggest that strengthening homeless young people's cognitive functioning and problem-solving abilities may help them develop skills needed in formal employment settings, as well as navigate and exit homelessness. Customizing employment and clinical interventions may reduce the risks linked to illicit economic activity and help homeless youth repurpose their entrepreneurial skills in safe and legal income generation. Ferguson et al. write that “a greater understanding of the ways in which male and female homeless young adults experience and cope with adversity might also guide the development of customized prevention and intervention efforts aimed at safe and legal income generation.”

Additional references: Find abstracts of other literature on homeless youth’s income generation and coping strategies in our digital library.

Learn how to help homeless youth develop and apply their entrepreneurial skills.

Read about prior research by Kristin Ferguson on integrating employment and mental health services.

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

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