A Comparison of Adaptive Strategies and Patterns of Victimization among Homeless Adolescents and Adults

By Whitbeck, Les B. PhD; Simons, Ronald L. PhD | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1993 | Go to article overview

A Comparison of Adaptive Strategies and Patterns of Victimization among Homeless Adolescents and Adults


Whitbeck, Les B. PhD, Simons, Ronald L. PhD, Violence and Victims


One hundred and fifty-six homeless adolescents and 319 homeless adults interviewed directly on the streets and in shelters were compared for backgrounds of abuse, adaptations to life on the streets, and rates of criminal victimization when on the streets. Homeless adolescents were more likely to be from abusive family backgrounds, more likely to rely on deviant survival strategies, and more likely to be criminally victimized. A social learning model of adaptation and victimization on the streets was hypothesized. Although the model was supported for both homeless adults and adolescents, it was more strongly supported for adolescents than adults, and for males than females regardless of age.

There has been extensive documentation of the dangers and hardships faced by those who find themselves homeless in our society. Over and above the fundamental vulnerability of being without a safe and private place to live and rest (Jahiel, 1987), living on the streets or in shelters is replete with day-to-day threats to physical and psychological well-being (Hope & Young, 1986). Physical threats abound both on the streets and in shelters (Committee on Health Care for Homeless People, 1988). Many homeless persons prefer the uncertainty of the streets to often overcrowded and poorly supervised public shelters (Hope & Young, 1986; Jahiel, 1987; Stefl, 1987). The psychological consequences of continual vulnerability to physical harm, exhaustion, poor nutrition, and the stress of living in public places serve to create psychological distress or exacerbate existing-psychological problems (Bassuk, 1986; Ropers, 1988; Simons & Whitbeck, 1989).

Although homelessness is not new (Hopper & Hamberg, 1986; Momeni, 1989), there is general consensus that during the past decade the number of homeless people has increased, and the character of the group has changed (Stepfl, 1987). The new homeless are a diverse group, made up of individual adults, youth, and families (Baxter & Hopper, 1984; Committee on Health Care for Homeless People, 1988). With the diversity of those who find themselves living on the streets or in shelters comes a diversity of adaptation strategies and risks. Separate street cultures may exist side by side, with little intermingling, and profoundly different survival experiences. Little research, however, explicitly compares the experiences on the streets of diverse groups. The present research contrasts survival strategies and victimization among homeless adolescents and adults.

HOMELESS ADOLESCENTS

Estimates of the number of runaway or throwaway youth on the streets are scarce (Committee on Health Care for Homeless People, 1988) and vary widely. The House Subcommittee on the Constitution has estimated that almost two million youths run away each year. In 1984, the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that up to 1.3 million youths had run away, and that 500,000 of these youths were, for all intents and purposes, homeless (Janus, McCormick, Burgess, & Hartman, 1987). According to Nye and Eldelbrock (1980), one child in eight will run away prior to age 18 years. This projection almost doubles for single parent households and households with more than eight persons. Janus et al. report that in 1985, "271 shelters provided 60, 500 youths with residential services, drop-in services aided 305,500, and hotline services were used by 250,000 youths" (1987, p. 12). Although they constitute a significant proportion of those on the street, most of the research on homeless youth is based on small samples, and often relies on anecdotal evidence. For example, the Committee on Health Care for Homeless People (1988) base their analysis of health risk and needs of homeless adolescents on three studies with samples of 84,118, and 149.

The work that has been done on adolescent homeless, however, reveals a stark and dangerous picture of life on the streets. Unlike romantic characterizations of runaways in the past, contemporary homeless adolescents are typically running away from something, rather than running toward something (Janus, et al. …

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