Homeless youth in the western world are estimated to be in this situation on average for three to five years (Van der Ploeg & Scholte, 1997; Korf, Diemel, Riper, & Nabben, 1999). Often these youngsters have a lengthy history of youth care before and during their homelessness. This prolonged process of care is detrimental to the physical and mental health of these youngsters. The primary aim of the present study is to examine how homeless youth evaluate the care system through a peer-research approach.
Homeless youth in western countries are defined as young people between the ages of 12 and 25 who have no regular place to stay. They sometimes can be found living on the streets, living with friends, and living in accommodations for homeless youth (Noom & De Winter, 2001; Van der Ploeg & Scholte, 1997). According to Van der Ploeg and Scholte, homelessness often starts with running away or being sent away from the family home, from a foster family, or from a residential center. Most of these youngsters return home, but a small proportion stay with friends, squatters or on the streets. Sometimes they stay at a youth hostel, a shelter, or a housing center.
Three types of factors can be related to youth homelessness: individual, social, and societal. At the individual level, lack of autonomy plays a key role in the emergence of homelessness. A central developmental task for adolescents is to develop the ability to give direction to their own life (Noom, 1999) by learning how to make decisions (cognitive autonomy), by developing self-confidence (emotional autonomy), and by learning how to develop a strategy to reach specific goals (behavioral autonomy). Several studies have shown that homeless youngsters experience difficulty in cognitive functioning and a sense of mastery (i.e., high external locus of control (Van der Ploeg, Gaemers, & Hoogendam, 1991), emotional stability (i.e., low self-esteem (Kurtz, Jarvis, & Kurtz, 1991), and strategic behavior in dealing with problematic situations (i.e., ineffective coping and lack of ego-control (Van der Ploeg, Gaemers, & Hoogendam, 1991).
At the social level, attachment is an important factor in youth homelessness. A significant developmental task during adolescence is the achievement and maintenance of attachment relationships with adults (in particular parents) and peers (Allen & Land, 1999). Many homeless youngsters come from severely disturbed multi-problem families with high levels of neglect and family crisis (Kurtz et al., 1991; Van der Ploeg & Scholte, 1997). A history of child maltreatment and abuse is quite common (Powers, Eckenrode, & Jaklitch, 1990; Mounier & Andujo, 2003). These family circumstances limit development of their ability to connect to others and build significant relationships.
Finally, socioeconomic factors are related to homelessness among youth. Poverty, lack of affordable housing, limited educational prospects, and unemployment increase the likelihood of homelessness (Van der Ploeg & Scholte, 1997).
The care-system for homeless youth in Western-European countries varies from low to high intensity approaches. First, there are outreach programs (streetcorner work), where the primary aim is to establish contact. When this contact is established, the youngsters are encouraged to accept more extensive types of help. Second there are agencies which provide emergency shelters. In day-care and sleep centers the youngsters can stay during the day or night, take a shower, wash their clothes, and get meals. Third there is non-residential or.outpatient care for practical, physical, emotional help. Fourth is residential care, where extensive counseling is provided in pensions and housing centers staffed by trained personnel.
In spite of a comprehensive care system, homeless youth encounter numerous difficulties finding their way back into society. …