How Does Mindfulness Help Homeless Youth Stay Safe?

Two young women standing under a street lamp.

Mindfulness Intervention with Homeless Youth” (abstract). Kimberly Bender, Stephanie Begun, Anne DePrince, Badiah Haffejee, Samantha Brown, Jessica Hathaway, and Nicholas Schau. Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, Vol. 6, No. 4 (October 2015).

What it’s about: Bender et al. investigated whether a mindfulness intervention could prevent homeless youth from being physically or sexually assaulted while on the street. They also explored which strategies work best to engage homeless youth in mindfulness training. The research team recruited 97 street youth ages 18 to 21 from a homeless shelter where they were already receiving services and randomly assigned them to a control or intervention group. Youth assigned to the intervention group participated in an adapted version of Safety Awareness for Empowerment (SAFE), an intensive mindfulness-based intervention designed to raise their awareness of risk cues.  

Why read it: Previous studies have shown how mindfulness meditation can help homeless youth cope with anxiety and stress. Yet this is the first study to explore how mindfulness can help street youth—most of whom have been victims of physical or sexual assault—better recognize dangerous situations and avoid becoming victims again, the authors write. Similarly, while past research has examined rates and risk factors that contribute to homeless youth being victimized, this is one of few studies looking at an intervention designed to prevent those experiences.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Researchers found that youth in the SAFE intervention group had a significant increase in observation skills, a key component of mindfulness, compared to participants in the control group. Observation skills, in turn, help young people pay attention to both internal cues (e.g., inner thoughts and feelings) and external cues (e.g., situations or people in their environment) to better gauge if a situation is safe.

Youth in both groups had a similar understanding of other mindfulness concepts such as differentiating between internal and external cues, being aware of one’s actions, accepting things as they are, and allowing one’s thoughts and feelings to change. 

In terms of engagement, the researchers shared the following strategies that were linked to greater participation:

  • Sharing challenges to learning mindfulness and examples of when mindfulness was helpful in their own lives
  • Asking questions to check young people’s understanding of mindfulness and to prompt further discussion
  • Teaching youth how to apply mindfulness to real-world situations

Even though the researchers observed positive effects of mindfulness, such as increased observational skills, they identified several barriers to youth practicing it daily:

Priorities. Homeless youth prioritized finding a place to stay and having food to eat over focusing their energies on awareness of their internal and external cues.

Trauma. Many of the participants had a history of trauma and had learned to respond quickly to perceived harm. The researchers viewed these reactions as counter to mindfulness because youth weren't actively paying attention to internal or external cues during that time.

Distrust. Many youth voiced a belief that service providers didn’t care about them or were untrustworthy. This lack of trust made it hard for them to use mindfulness to identify healthy relationships with people who could help them.

Despite these barriers, the findings suggest that homeless youth will engage in a mindfulness intervention designed to prevent them from becoming victims or to generally help them experience safer, healthier lives. Future research is needed, the authors suggest, to explore how homeless youth can apply mindfulness techniques to their daily lives regardless of common roadblocks.

Additional references: Learn more about mindfulness and street outreach in the NCFY library.

Watch a five-minute guided meditation for youth workers.

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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