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