Academic journal article Theory in Action

A Paradox of Street Survival: Street Masteries Influencing Runaways' Motivations to Maintain Street Life

Academic journal article Theory in Action

A Paradox of Street Survival: Street Masteries Influencing Runaways' Motivations to Maintain Street Life

Article excerpt


Homeless and runaway youth research has identified numerous risks associated with street life. Among other things, runaways are at increased risk for drug use (Kipke et al., 1997), criminal behaviors (Hagan & McCarthy, 1997), and dissociative symptoms (Tyler et al., 2004). Additional risks for depression and victimization (Whitbeck et al. 1999), and alcohol abuse (McMorris et al., 2002) increase for those engaged in deviant forms of subsistence. Runaways are at elevated risk for numerous negative mental health outcomes. Slesnick and Prestopnik (2005), for example, found that 60% of youths in a runaway shelter met criteria for dual diagnoses. Johnson et al. (2005) discovered that 93% of runaways who met criteria for substance use disorders also met criteria for at least one other mental disorder. Runaways exhibiting the greatest mental and physical health needs are often the ones least likely to access mental health, medical, and other social services (Slesnick et al., 2001).

Hagan and McCarthy (1997) argue that negative outcomes are influenced jointly by sociogenic and "ontogenetic" factors. Sociogenic factors arise from social influences, values, and constraints and they include forces such as adverse family backgrounds (Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999; Tyler et al., 2001; Tyler et al., 2002; Tyler et al., 2004; Yoder et al., 2001), deviant street peers (Hagan & McCarthy, 1997; Yoder et al., 2003), and deviant subsistence strategies (Whitbeck et al., 1999; McMorris et al., 2002). Ontogenetic factors (such as choice or agency) have been less emphasized in previous studies. In particular, researchers have only rarely considered the basic question of how motivated street youth are to leave the streets. Despite numerous advances, previous researchers have tacitly assumed that all runaways are equally motivated to leave the streets. Those less motivated to leave the streets would be likely to experience greater health and safety risks for longer periods of time.

Auerswald and Eyre's (2002) study stands out as an exception. Their qualitative research suggested that street youth are more motivated to leave the streets when in states of "disequilibrium" (2002); that is, when street stressors contribute to experiences of disorientation or internal imbalance. While significantly advancing knowledge, Auerswald and Eyre (2002) were nonetheless unable to gauge distributions of such motivations within a larger runaway sample. In addition, neither Auerswald and Eyre nor other researchers have identified the forces that increase motivations to stay on the streets.

A baseline look at the Seattle Homeless Adolescent Research and Education (SHARE) sample suggests that only 50% of homeless and runaway youth are strongly motivated to get off of the streets. SHARE data clearly suggests that such motivations are not equally distributed. The empirical existence of motivational differentials brings the need for identifying the social factors that contribute to these differences to the forefront. A better understanding of the social influences of runaways' motivations could advance social scientific knowledge as well as lending important insights to social policymakers and services providers.

The purpose of this study is to use logistic regression methodologies to identify social correlates of motivations to either stay on or leave the streets. Viewing motivation to leave the streets as a stress-related outcome (albeit a positive one), this article briefly summarizes stress process research. Stress process theory can be modified to account for the non-conventional nature of "stress moderators" used by street youth. Runaways' social supports (deviant peers) and personal masteries (dumpster diving, panhandling), while not normative, appear to buffer some types of street stress.

Hypotheses center on the relationships of (non-conventional) stress moderators to the stress-related outcome of motivation (to stay or to leave). …

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