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Needs and Differences between Pregnant or Parenting Homeless Youth and their Peers

A teen mom feeding her baby.

Parenting and Homeless: Profiles of Young Adult Mothers and Fathers in Unstable Housing Situations” (abstract). Sarah C. Narendorf, Sheara Williams Jennings, and Diane Santa Maria. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, Vol. 97, No. 3 (2016).

What it’s about: Pregnancy rates among youth are significantly higher among those who are homeless. Narendorf and her colleagues wanted to learn about the experiences of pregnant and parenting homeless or unstably housed young adults, and whether there were differences between parenting mothers and fathers.

To examine these issues, the researchers surveyed 352 youth, ages 18 to 24, from shelters, street outreach, drop-in centers, and youth-specific magnet events in a large Southwestern U.S. city. Participants were asked about their current living situations, mental health, history of foster care or juvenile justice system involvement, substance use, social support, and employment status, among other measures.

Why read it: Research suggests that pregnant and parenting homeless youth face even greater health and social challenges than do their homeless peers who are not pregnant or parenting. Yet few studies have looked at the characteristics, risk and protective factors, and needs of pregnant and parenting homeless youth, especially fathers.

This study aims to fill that gap by examining differences between homeless pregnant and parenting youth and their nonparenting peers, and between parenting homeless young mothers and fathers. The authors make suggestions for ways the study results can be used to tailor service delivery to the unique needs of young mothers and fathers experiencing homelessness.

Biggest takeaways from the research: The authors found that homeless young people who were pregnant or parenting differed significantly from nonpregnant or nonparenting homeless young people in a number of areas, including the following:

Mental health. Pregnant or parenting homeless youth were significantly more likely than their nonparenting peers to report being diagnosed with either depression or bipolar disorder. They also reported a significantly higher number of traumatic events during childhood. This finding highlights the importance of incorporating a trauma-informed care approach when working with these young adults, the authors suggest.

Social support. Narendorf et al. were surprised to find that expectant or parenting homeless youth were more likely than their nonparenting peers to report having at least one supportive adult in their lives whom they could rely on for emotional support, or to whom they could go for advice about employment or education. The authors suggest that service providers for homeless parents work to include these young people’s natural social support system in planning for their long-term stability.

Reason for homelessness. Homeless pregnant and parenting youth were more likely to report becoming homeless because they were unable to afford rent. The authors suggest that the cost of raising a child could contribute to youth becoming homeless.

The authors also found a number of significant differences between young mothers and fathers experiencing homelessness, including the following:

Custody. Mothers were significantly more likely than fathers to have custody of their children (68 percent). By contrast, less than 10 percent of fathers had custody of their children.

Living situation. Seventy percent of mothers reported living in a shelter or in transitional housing such as that funded by the Family and Youth Services Bureau’s Maternity Group Homes for Pregnant and Parenting Youth Program. The most common living situation for fathers was on the streets (63 percent). According to the authors, the significant difference in child custody between the two groups could be linked to the differences in their living situations.

Reason for homelessness. Compared with mothers, fathers were significantly more likely to report becoming homeless because they had aged out of foster care or the juvenile justice system.

The authors recommend that service providers increase their focus on the needs of homeless fathers. They urge providers to help get these men into service settings, after which supportive housing, counseling for mental and substance use disorders, and other needed supportive services could be provided. The authors write that these supportive services should include positive parent training tailored to these fathers’ unique needs.

They also suggest runaway and homeless youth programs assist youth with accessing other resources and benefits such as health insurance and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

Additional references: Look for more articles about homeless and pregnant youth in our digital library.

For information on working with pregnant and parenting youth, take a look at “6 Tips for Connecting with Pregnant and Parenting Teens.”

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