Short- and Long-Term Homelessness and Adolescents' Self-Esteem, Depression, Locus of Control and Social Supports

Article excerpt

The literature on homelessness in the 1960's and early 1970's typically focused on people living in `skid-row', a term referring to the inner city areas where middle-aged and older men tended to congregate. Much has changed in the twenty to thirty years since. The homeless now are thought to be both significantly younger and to include more women (Chamberlain & Mackenzie, 1992). In fact, the problem of youth homelessness is not new. It is rather that awareness of it has increased in the media, government and community groups (Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare, 1982).

Homelessness tends to be defined in terms of individuals who reside either on the streets, in refuges and shelters, with friends and relatives (temporarily), in single rooms or boarding houses (for less than 45 days) or in abandoned houses or buildings (Chamberlain & Mackenzie, 1992). Most homeless people move frequently between all of these options, with the majority residing temporarily with friends and relatives and in refuges and shelters (Chamberlain & Mackenzie, 1992; Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1989; Sykes, 1993). People are referred to as homeless while living in this way because such accommodation is temporary, is characterised by continual insecurity and fails to offer protection from harm and emotional support (Chamberlain & Mackenzie, 1992; Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1989).

The psychological effects of homelessness on young people may depend on the duration of homelessness (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1989). For some, the situation is short-term, with an eventual move either back to the family home or to alternative secure accommodation. For homelessness of a longer duration, the potential psychological costs to the individual can be greater. Dabbs (1991 as cited in Chamberlain, Mackenzie & Brown, 1991) and Rossi (1989) defined a short period of homelessness as up to three months. Pears and Noller (1995) asserted that after six months, individuals are progressing into long-term homelessness.

Psychological vulnerability among homeless youth

Psychological vulnerability has been identified as prevalent among homeless young people (Sykes, 1993), and includes low self-esteem, depression (Goodman, Saxe & Harvey, 1991), external locus of control (Miner, 1991) and lack of social supports (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1989). Such vulnerabilities may stem from the home environment, including family fragmentation or abuse, or even biological disposition (Goodman et al, 1991). Even so, irrespective of their psychological adjustment prior to leaving home, the experience of homelessness in itself may be a trauma (Goodman, et al, 1991; Hutson & Liddiard, 1994; Pawsey & Fuller, 1993; Williamson & Koole, 1986).

Loss of self-esteem among the homeless

Low self-esteem is one of the most common psychological correlates of homelessness (Pears & Noller, 1995; Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare, 1982). Self-esteem is a personal judgement of worthiness that is expressed in the attitudes an individual holds about him/herself (Burns, 1979). Miner (1991) compared levels of self-esteem of long-term homeless adolescents with that of young people who were either employed or studying while living at home. Homeless adolescents scored significantly lower on a measure of global self-esteem as compared with the adolescents who were still residing at home. According to Burns (1979), adolescents' self-esteem is de-stabilised as a result of traumatic experiences. The reason homelessness constitutes a traumatic experience is that young people face the predicament of obtaining food, shelter and necessities in an environment that is often unsafe and unpredictable (Goodman et al, 1991). In addition, the lack of paid work and material possessions, important sources of an individual's identity, are the things which homeless young people lack (Williamson & Koole, 1986). …