Understanding Methamphetamine Use Among Homeless Youth

Sad young man wearing a ski cap.

We’ve seen that homeless youth, particularly those involved in relationship violence, are more likely to use methamphetamine—sometimes referred to as meth—than their peers. But what else makes some homeless youth more likely to choose this highly addictive stimulant and how does that decision impact their safety? We reviewed three studies that seek to answer those questions and to offer suggestions for youth-serving programs.

Examining the Role of Social Networks

Research shows that peer influence can strongly impact a young person’s drug use, yet few studies have tried to understand how one’s position within their social network can affect their risk of using a particular drug. To investigate this link, researcher Anamika Barman-Adhikari and her colleagues collected data about drug use and sexual behaviors from 136 homeless youth receiving services in Los Angeles. Participants also provided information about their social interactions with others, including people with whom they had “hung out”, had sex, “hooked up,” “partied,” drank alcohol, or used drugs. Those names were removed to maintain confidentiality.

Youth who had the most social connections and were at the center of their social network were more likely to be methamphetamine users than youth who paired off with one friend or who socialized with a small group. Also, the more meth-using individuals a youth interacted with, the more likely they were to use methamphetamines themselves.

Peer interactions also played a role in a study led by Amanda Yoshioka-Maxwell at the University of Southern California. That study sought to explore why homeless youth who have been involved in the foster care system are typically more at-risk for methamphetamine use than other homeless young people.

Researchers gathered information from 652 participants who had visited a Los Angeles drop-in center. Each youth shared a list of all the people they had interacted with over the past month, whether in-person, over the phone, or digitally via texting, email, or social media. Each name was then replaced with a number.

Researchers found that former foster youth interacted with more methamphetamine users than those without foster care histories. These same young people also spent more time on the on the streets than other homeless youth. Youth-serving agencies should consider interventions that address the influence of drug-using peers to curb methamphetamine use among former foster youth, the authors suggest, or that reduce the duration of their homelessness.

Making the Connection to Other Risky Behaviors

Unfortunately, methamphetamine use may contribute to other risky behaviors that make it difficult for youth to achieve safe, stable housing. A study of Canadian youth who were unstably housed or had recently accessed street-based services found that those who took crystal meth, the most potent form of the drug, during the study’s follow-up period were also more likely to:

  • Take drugs via injection
  • Deal drugs
  • Engage in sex work
  • Encounter violence
  • Experience a non-fatal overdose.

The team of researchers behind that study say that more information is needed to better understand why so many homeless youth use crystal meth and whether use of the drug is a cause—or product of—homelessness. More programs are needed to prevent methamphetamine use among homeless youth receiving services, they say, or to treat young people who are already addicted.

Read the Articles

Social Network Correlates of Methamphetamine, Heroin, and Cocaine Use in a Sociometric Network of Homeless Youth (abstract). Anamika Barman-Adhikari, Eric Rice, Hailey Winetrobe, and Robin Petering. Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2015.

Methamphetamine Use among Homeless Former Foster Youth: The Mediating Role of Social Networks (abstract). Amanda Yoshioka-Maxwell, Eric Rice, Harmony Rhoades, and Hailey Winetrobe. Journal of Alcoholism & Drug Dependence, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2015.

Health and Social Harms Associated with Crystal Methamphetamine Use among Street‐Involved Youth in a Canadian Setting (abstract). Sasha Uhlmann, Kora DeBeck, Annick Simo, Thomas Kerr, Julio S.G. Montaner, and Evan Wood. The American Journal on Addictions, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2014.

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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