The Role of Childhood Abuse on Street Victimization and Housing Instability

Homeless Teenage Girl On Street With Rucksack

Homeless Youths’ Caretakers: The Mediating Role of Childhood Abuse on Street Victimization and Housing Instability (abstract). Natasha Slesnick, Jing Zhang, and Brittany Brakenhoff. Social Work Vol. 61, No. 2 (April 2016).

What it’s about: Slesnick, Zhang, and Brakenhoff look at whether and how growing up with multiple caretakers, including birth parents, extended family members, and foster parents, and experiencing different types of abuse affect youth’s housing stability and victimization while homeless.  

To investigate, the authors surveyed 79 youth aged 14 to 24 years old who were also participating in a clinical trial designed to evaluate the effectiveness of outreach services for the most vulnerable of homeless youth. Youth in the study reported that they were homeless or unstably housed for the past three months or longer. They also reported using alcohol or drugs at least six times in the last 30 days, and had not used services through drop-in centers, shelters, or drug or psychiatric treatment programs in the last three months.

Why read it: There is little research on whether homeless youth with more adverse childhood experiences are more vulnerable and need targeted interventions, Slesnick et al. state. Few studies have investigated how multiple transitions of caretakers, including foster care and other placements, affect future homeless experiences. To their knowledge, this is the first study to examine such links among a high-risk sample of street-living and substance-using homeless youth. In addition, the authors analyzed the effects of different types of abuse—physical, sexual, and neglect—on later housing stability and victimization separately, rather than combining them into one outcome as other studies may do.

With this study they intend to shed light on which homeless young people are most at risk while on the streets, and inform service providers’ development and use of appropriate assessment tools and intervention efforts. 

Biggest takeaways from the research: Slesnick et al. found that having had multiple caretaker transitions was linked with childhood sexual abuse and neglect, but not with physical abuse.  Having multiple caretakers by itself was not directly related to later street victimization or housing instability, but when coupled with childhood sexual abuse, it was.

Moreover, Slesnick et al. found that sexual abuse had significantly more harmful effects on homeless youths’ later experiences than physical abuse or neglect. Specifically, homeless youth who have experienced sexual abuse are at heightened risk for future victimization and housing instability compared with other homeless youth.

Although all homeless youth require assistance to exit street life, Slesnick et al. suggest that sexually abused youth may have more barriers to maintaining stable housing compared with those who experienced physical abuse or neglect. They recommend specialized interventions to identify and provide services to these young people. For example, they write, sexually abused youth in particular may require targeted guidance in evaluating risk situations while on the street and developing safety plans.

Whether youth  had foster care involvement, and whether they were male or female had no significant impact on their experiences of housing instability and victimization. Slesnick et al. suggest that it’s likely the factors that led to foster care placement, rather than the experience of foster care itself, that predict housing instability.

Age, however, did make a difference. Older youth reported higher levels of housing stability than younger youth, and younger youth were at higher risk for housing instability. The authors suggest that older youth may have developed more resources over time than younger youth.

Additional references: Find abstracts of other literature on homeless youth victimization and foster care involvement and in our digital library.

Access a 10-question screening tool Minnesota police use to screen runaway and homeless youth for sexual abuse.

Read research on the links between victimization on the street and increased mental health challenges like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

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

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