Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

"We're Locking the Door": Family Histories in a Sample of Homeless Youth

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

"We're Locking the Door": Family Histories in a Sample of Homeless Youth

Article excerpt


Research has shown that homeless young people suffer many negative experiences that are directly correlated with living on the street, in shelters, or engaging in couch surfing (living with various friends). These youth may experience chronic, cyclical, or temporary homelessness, and may also engage in a range of negative behaviours, including sex work, drug use, and crime (Baron & Hartnagel, 2002; Hagan & McCarthy, 1997; Kidd & Kral, 2002; MacDonald, Fisher, Wells, Doherty, & Bowie, 1994; ). Many suffer a range of maladies including depression, anxiety, malnutrition, anemia, respiratory ailments, alcohol and drug addiction, and other physical and psychological problems (Bearsley & Cummins, 1999; Davey, 1998; Frankish, Hwang, & Quantz, 2005).

Although these are well known outcomes of becoming and living without a home, researchers also generally agree that familial and structural factors play an important antecedent role in youth homelessness. Along with poverty, and inadequate or inaccessible social services, among the most widely cited set of factors have to do with young people's relationships with parents and other family members, particularly experiences of violence and aggression (Anooshian, 2005; Bao, Whitbeck, & Hoyt, 2000; Ensign & Bell, 2004; Martijn & Sharpe, 2006; Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Ackley, 1997). In addition, increasing evidence is mounting suggesting that abusive experiences in the family need not be confined to physical abuse or overaggressive parenting. Moreover, as Hyde (2005) points out, very little research has examined strained familial relationships from the perspectives of homeless youth. In this paper we describe the family experiences of 15 homeless male and female youth between the ages of 16 and 24 in a suburban area of Southern Ontario, Canada.

Theoretical Framework

Throwaway Youth and the Sink or Swim Family

Scholars have suggested that one of the primary challenges in dealing with homelessness is overcoming the pervasive public belief that the homeless are responsible for their own situations, a belief reflected in the persistent notion of the homeless as the "undeserving poor" (Amster, 2003; Daly, 1996; Pellegrini, Queirolo, Monarrez, & Valenzuela, 1997). Part of this perception is the idea that understanding how individuals find their way to the street is unworthy of our increasingly precious resources. Accordingly, when resources are directed to this issue, explaining what places individuals at risk for homelessness becomes the focus with less attention paid to the social and economic contexts in which this vulnerable population lives. Yet it is well known that an understanding of the structural causes of homelessness is one of the key precursory actions when seeking to mitigate this problem (Varney & van Vliet, 2008).

The emphasis on individual responsibility, most recently crystallized in the academic and helping professions by the emphasis on individual "risk factors," ignores the role of structural forces in conditioning and shaping the lives of vulnerable populations generally, and the homeless in particular (Rosenthal & Rotheram-Borus, 2005; Zerger, Strehlow, & Gundlapalli, 2008). Thus, rather than focusing attention on individual pathologies and personality traits as the potential causes of homelessness among youth, some scholars have examined the role of negative family relationships (Whitbeck et al., 1997), social capital (Bantchevska, Bartle-Haring, Dashora, Glebova, & Slesnick, 2008), negative peer social networks (Bao et al., 2000; Rice, Stein, & Milburn, 2008), social support (Torquati & Gamble, 2001) and other structural variables that both cause and perpetuate homelessness.

While individual pathologies and behaviors are important aspects of homelessness, here we draw attention to the importance of social-structural and cultural forces in understanding homeless youths lives, particularly in relation to the centrality of supportive and functional family life. …

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