The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Beyond Providing a Place to Live: An Ethnographic Study of Addressing Housing Needs of Youth Aging Out

Saturday, January 18, 2014: 5:00 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 008A River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Lisa Schelbe, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Background and Purpose: Stable housing is a challenge for many youth “aging out” of the child welfare system. Consistently, research has found high rates of homelessness among youth aging out, and studies have found 1/4 to 1/2 of youth aging out experience unstable housing after leaving care (See Dworsky et al, 2012 for review of research). Failure to obtain stable housing potentially impacts multiple aspects of the lives of youth aging out including their education, employment, and health. While studies have documented the scope of housing problems  youth aging out face, little research has been conducted about youth and service providers’ experiences and perceptions about the housing needs of youth aging out.  The research question guiding the study is how can agencies address the housing needs of youth aging out? The study’s goals are to examine the housing experiences of youth aging out in subsidized apartments and to explore the challenges related to addressing the youths’ housing needs.   

Methods:  This study is part of a larger ethnography of youth aging out of the child welfare system exploring how youth negotiate the transition out of the child welfare system.  Observation and interviews were conducted over two years in a Mid-Atlantic urban county. Study participants, recruited from a local housing program providing subsidized apartments to youth aging out, include 13 youth (ages 18-23) aging out of the child welfare system and 3 staff members. Observation occurred in multiple settings including agencies, youths’ apartments, and community settings. Interviews focused on youths’ experiences aging out including those with housing. Data include transcriptions of interviews and fieldnotes of observations. Data analysis was an inductive, iterative process involving coding, memoing and member checking.

Results: Youth simultaneously expressed the importance of having their own apartment and their apprehension about living alone. A concern of both staff and youth shared was youth possessed limited life skills needed to maintain a home (i.e. budgeting, cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking) and ill-prepared to live on their own. Frequently, youth were vulnerable to family and friends who capitalized upon the youth having subsidized housing. Challenges with employment, education, health, mental health, or substance use could destabilize youths’ housing, and for youth with little support, sometimes resulted in their becoming homeless. Youth often struggled; however youth with consistent employment and social support better negotiated crises.

Conclusion and Implications: Findings suggest that the housing needs of youth aging out are complex and extend beyond simply providing a place for youth to live. Challenges in other domains of life (i.e. employment, health, family) can reverberate throughout youths’ lives, undermining their ability to live on their own. Programs addressing youths’ housing needs may need to emphasize building youths’ social support and adopt a holistic approach addressing multiple domains of their lives. Future research should explore the interconnectedness of housing and other domains of youths’ lives and evaluate programs addressing housing needs of youth aging out.