How Does Gang Involvement Impact Health Outcomes of Homeless Youth?

Silhouettes of young people standing under a bridge.

Sexual risk, substance use, mental health, and trauma experiences of gang-involved homeless youth” (abstract). Robin Petering. Journal of Adolescence, Vol. 48 (2016).

What it’s about: Researcher Petering examined the impact gang involvement has on homeless youth to answer the question, “Are homeless youth who identify as gang members or gang affiliates more likely to report a variety of risk behaviors and negative outcomes compared to their non-gang involved counterparts?” Research staff recruited 505 homeless youth from two Los Angeles drop-in agencies to complete an online self-report survey of about 200 questions addressing their involvement in gangs, exposure to trauma, mental health, sexual behavior, and substance use. Based on their responses, youth were categorized into three groups: gang member, gang affiliate, and not involved in gangs.  

Why read it: This study is unique because it compared homeless youth who self-identify as gang members and those affiliated with gangs to youth with no gang involvement. Despite the lack of information on homeless youth involved in gangs, the author suggests that the findings from this study show the need for interventions tailored for this population.

Biggest takeaways from the research: For homeless youth, present or former involvement in a gang or being affiliated with a gang greatly increased the risk of negative health outcomes and experiences compared to youth with no gang involvement or affiliation.

According to the study, 17 percent of homeless youth identified as being a former or current gang member, and 46 percent identified as gang affiliates (i.e., youth who could identify a close friend, family member, or romantic partner as a gang member). Of those who reported being gang members, 82 percent joined before becoming homeless.

  • Substance Use: Gang members and affiliates were significantly more likely to have engaged in sex under the influence of either drugs or alcohol during their last sexual encounter compared to youth not involved in gangs. Similarly, gang members and affiliates reported much higher rates of methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana use.
  • Mental Health: Youth without any gang involvement were less likely to have experienced depression or post-traumatic stress disorder than youth who were gang members or affiliated. Gang members were also 2.5 times more likely to have reported attempting suicide than youth not involved in gangs.
  • Trauma: Gang members were significantly more likely to have suffered from trauma as a child, including instances of sexual abuse, physical abuse, or witnessing family violence. Similarly, gang affiliates were twice as likely to have reported childhood sexual abuse.
  • Sexual Behavior: Both gang members and affiliates were more likely to have engaged in survival sex (i.e., the exchange of sex for money, drugs, food, or a place to stay.) Likewise, they were more likely to have reported multiple sex partners and less likely to have used a condom during their last sexual encounter.  

The author cautions against generalizing these findings for homeless youth in other communities, noting that gangs are highly associated with location. The findings also may not represent homeless youth staying in temporary shelters or those accessing services. Future research should focus on informing policies and programs that address the needs of homeless youth involved in gangs.

Additional references: Look for more articles on gangs and homeless youth in our digital library.

Read our interview with Robin Petering on Homeless Youth and Gangs.

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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