The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Danger On the Streets: Risk Detection and Self Protection Among Homeless Youth

Friday, January 18, 2013: 3:00 PM
Nautilus 5 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Kimberly A. Bender, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Sanna Thompson, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Kristin M. Ferguson, PhD, Associate Professor, City University of New York, New York, NY
Leah Kern, BA, Masters Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Purpose: Homeless youth frequently experience familial abuse prior to leaving home, and the majority will face re-victimization on the streets. Repeated victimization without treatment may lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – a mental illness common among homeless youth. Previous research has demonstrated that a similar population of youth, those in foster care with histories of trauma, lack key risk-detection skills, placing them at increased risk for re-victimization. Although homeless youths’ abilities to detect danger on the streets is needed for their daily survival, no known studies have examined how homeless youth recognize dangerous situations and employ self-protection strategies to avoid victimization. Utilizing qualitative interviews with a large sample of homeless youth across three U.S. cities, this study sought youths’ perspectives on ways in which they detect danger and protect themselves on the streets.  

Method: Through purposive sampling, 145 street youth were recruited through host agencies serving homeless youth in Los Angeles [n=50], Denver [n=50], and Austin [n=45] and asked to participate in semi-structured qualitative interviews. To characterize youths’ levels of previous victimization and symptoms of PTSD, a brief quantitative instrument (Mini International Neuropsychiatry Interview) was administered. Qualitative open-ended questions investigated three general areas of interest: how youth identify danger; the contexts in which they feel at risk; and the self-protection strategies youth employ to stay safe. Interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed and analyzed using iterative content analysis. Inter-rater reliability was calculated among a team of three coders (range 87-96%).

Results: Quantitatively, 78% of respondents screened positive for trauma experiences and approximately 28% met DSMIV criteria for PTSD. Qualitatively, youth described detecting danger by paying attention to internal risk cues or intuition, which often involved noticing physical sensations (nervous stomach, hair raising, heart pounding). They also appraised external cues inherent in the way individuals approached them (violating personal space, offering unsolicited help) and described scanning their environments for individuals with suspicious intentions. Youth identified specific contexts in which they felt most at risk, including being in unfamiliar territory or with people they did not know, feeling trapped or stuck in inescapable situations, and spending time with individuals who use or sell drugs. Youth described employing self-protection strategies, including carrying weapons, being with someone they could trust, isolating themselves from others, and actively working towards leaving the streets. A number of youth, however, lacked risk-detection skills and described never knowing where danger may appear.

Implications: Findings indicate that many homeless youth develop strategies for detecting risks and assessing dangerous situations on the streets.  These strategies are formed as youth gain street experience or acquire “street smarts.” Youth with limited experience on the streets may be naïve to the varied risks and have not yet developed needed safety strategies. This group requires further study as they are likely more vulnerable. Considering the high rates of victimization reported, further study should investigate the effectiveness of youths’ risk-detection strategies in averting or managing risk. Interventions aimed at helping youth develop effective risk-detection and self-protection skills may be preventative and reduce further re-victimization among street youth.