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How is Positive Youth Development Linked to Effective Services for Runaway and Homeless Youth?

Young people sitting on and around a sofa in a drop-in center.

“‘Coming From the Place of Walking with the Youth—That Feeds Everything’: A Mixed Methods Case Study of a Runaway and Homeless Youth Organization.“ Noelle R. Leonard, Robert Freeman, Amanda S. Ritchie, Marya V. Gwadz, Lara Tabac, Victoria Vaughan Dickson, Charles M. Cleland, James Bolas, and Margo Hirsh. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, published online February 4, 2017.

What it’s about: Leonard and her research team conducted an in-depth case study of a multi-service setting for runaway and homeless youth in a mid-sized city in the Northeast United States. Services included: street outreach, a drop-in center, an emergency shelter, an independent living program, and a transitional living program. The research team selected the agency for its consistent Positive Youth Development, or PYD, approach as demonstrated in another study. Due to privacy concerns, the authors refer to the agency by an alias, Premier Adolescent Service Center, or PASC.

Leonard et al. used the Youth Program Quality Assessment to guide their case study. They used a mix of a quantitative survey, focus groups, and in-depth interviews to capture the perspectives of youth, staff, and program administrators. Fifty-four youth participated in the survey, 12 young people ages 16-21 participated in a total of three focus groups, and two direct service staff members and the program director completed in-depth interviews with researchers.

Why read it: While the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act directs grantees to deliver services consistent with the PYD model, more research is needed on the ways RHY settings can deliver effective services using this approach, Leonard et al. write. Other case studies have examined how individual runaway and homeless youth interact with a variety of RHY services and settings. This study, however, examines one RHY setting through the perspectives of youth, staff, and program administration. Through this case study, the authors intend to guide agencies serving runaway and homeless youth toward a greater understanding of what is needed to deliver effective RHY settings and services informed by PYD.

Biggest takeaways from the research: The researchers found that the key to program success across all domains was being youth-centered, a main tenet of PYD. According to the authors, PASC achieved this by establishing and cultivating non-judgmental, emotionally-supportive relationships with youth. The goal of these relationships was to foster trust among youth, which in turn helped them feel safe enough to be willing to engage in services, Leonard et al. write.

Empowering youth as major actors in their own development, another component of PYD, was key to program success at PASC. Both youth and staff described three ways this goal was accomplished:

  1. Staff engaged and interacted with youth in a developmentally-appropriate manner.
  2. Staff referred to the program’s youth-centered principles when deciding what types of funding to pursue and accept, rejecting those that were antithetical to the philosophy.
  3. The agency fostered a culture of continuous reflection and evaluation of the ways they were maintaining their youth-centered mission over time.

While supporting youth autonomy can sometimes be challenging when runaway and homeless youth make choices and exhibit behaviors that are re-traumatizing for them, Leonard et al. found that PASC worked to balance the maintenance of a relationship with youth and the safety of both youth and staff. They write, “it is at these moments that [staff’s] commitment to the youth takes on even greater importance.” PASC transformed many of the crises runaway and homeless youth experience into opportunities for reflection, further training, and improved policies.

Key ingredients to PASC’s success included two main themes:

  1. Having good relationships among staff and youth.
  2. Having agency settings and policies informed by a youth-centered mission.

Leonard et al. recommend that future research focus on the hiring, training, and supervision of staff working with runaway and homeless youth, as well as ways the application of PYD principles can improve runaway and homeless youth’s psychosocial, behavioral, educational, and vocational outcomes over time.

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

Read about the Youth Program Quality Intervention, which is based on the YPQA Leonard et al. used.

Take our free online training on Positive Youth Development in youth work.

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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