For young people who’ve been in foster care and juvenile justice programs, entering adulthood often means becoming homeless, according to a 2020 study published by the Child and Youth Services Review. Researchers found that better prevention and housing stability could tackle the problem.
According to the study, 57% of young adults experiencing homelessness have prior records of foster care, juvenile justice or both. Data collected across seven U.S. cities show just how unprepared for adulthood these young people are: Researchers identified poorly-managed case planning, lack of supportive social networks and unintended high-risk behaviors as factors that set the young people up for challenged futures.
Sarah Narendorf, associate dean for research and faculty development at the University of Houston and lead author of the study, said that one main reason young people become homeless is poor transition planning.
Services such as extended foster care serving youth ages 18 to 21 “didn’t fix the underlying issue” of homelessness, Narendorf said. “There’s a problem with resources and supports.”
The study concluded that preventative efforts should focus on housing stability, an essential component in a young person’s transition plan out of foster care or the juvenile justice system. Reducing the risk of homelessness requires collaboration between child welfare departments and court systems. Service providers can begin by identifying the housing plan for young people leaving a state’s system, said Narendorf, combating the issue by thinking through “a preventative lens.”
For instance, programs can create individualized transition plans for young adults — specifically, a supportive social network, which is a connection between the young person and a dependable ally. Narendorf said one benefit of having a social network is that it can provide a source of stability, either financially or with housing. It can also serve as a proactive measure for spotting which young people are at risk for becoming homeless and what ways someone can intervene. In other words, forming social connections that ensure that a young person feels supported well into their adolescent years can mean the difference between being housed and being homeless.
When a young person does not have a stable social network, research shows that those with system involvement have greater odds of engaging in high-risk behaviors with sex and drugs.
Young people who engaged in sex trafficking did so as a survival method to avoid moments of homelessness, Narendorf said, as it supplied money for basic essential needs such as food and shelter. Among the homeless adolescents studied, those with “dual status” in both the chid welfare and juvenile justice systems had the highest odds of trading sex as a means of survival..
According to Narendorf, service providers need to better communicate about exit strategies to avoid such scenarios. “The homeless serving systems could do more collaborating with these transition centers that provide support,” she said.
Another approach is taking a look at the young adults’ previous traumas for any indicators to potentially identify future high-risk behaviors, so providers will be able to intervene. The study found that preventative work needs to be done by service providers as an effort to combat high-risk behaviors.
All in all, continuing this conversation will also bring about more awareness. As a result of this research, Narendorf said, “There’s growing recognition of this unique group of young people that are at enhanced risk for challenges in transitions into adulthood.”