The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

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

Factors Associated With Arrests Among Homeless Young Adults

Saturday, January 18, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Karin E. Wachter, MEd, Doctoral Student & Project Director, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
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
Kimberly A. Bender, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Denver, Denver, CO

According to previous research, 1.35 million youth experience homelessness each year. Homeless young adults (ages 18-24) have disproportionately greater involvement with the criminal justice system than their housed counterparts. These homeless young people often live on the streets, are highly transient, have limited formal employment opportunities, and are distrustful of professionals and formal services. They are likely to be embedded in a street culture where they associate with deviant peer groups, abuse substances and often engage in illegal survival strategies that increase their likelihood for police encounters.

General Strain Theory (GST) provides a useful framework for understanding young adults’ arrest history and interaction with the criminal justice system. GST suggests how strains and responses to strains result in negative emotional responses that can lead to criminal activity and ultimately to arrest. This exploratory study examined arrests among homeless young adults in relation to strains (childhood trauma and trauma experienced on the streets) and maladaptive responses to strain (survival strategies and addiction). 


Interviews using self-report instruments were conducted with 191 young adults aged 18 to 24 year receiving homeless services from a community drop-in center. Measures included arrest (one-time offenders and repeat offenders), strains (length of time on the street, childhood trauma and trauma experienced on the streets) and responses to strains (survival strategies and addiction). Binary logistic regression examined strain/response to strain variables on arrest (never/once=0, more than twice=1).


Participants averaged 21 years of age and were predominantly white (76%) and male (64%) and averaged 6.5 arrests. Thirty eight percent reported <1 arrest; 62% had been arrested at least twice. Fifty percent experienced physical abuse; 65% emotional abuse; and 22% sexual abuse; 30% had been robbed with a weapon; 58% physically or sexually assaulted; 23. 28% sold drugs, and 84% were addicted to substances.

The binary logistic regression analysis suggested that being older (OR = 1.68), male (OR = 3.27), living longer on the street (OR = 1.42), dealing drugs (OR = 2.44), and being addicted to substances (OR = 2.69) significantly increased the likelihood of being arrested more than once ([16] = 65.85, p<.001, Cox & Snell R2=.30). 


Findings suggest homeless young adults who experience specific strains and responses to strains are more likely to be involved in criminal activity to the point of being arrested. Those who were older and lived on the streets for longer periods of time were more likely to have been arrested multiple times. Being addicted to substances and engaging in drug dealing to earn income also increased their risk for multiple arrests. Findings highlight the need to address homeless young adults’ substance abuse and to transition them off the streets early in their homeless experience. Efforts to address these issues would likely prevent their criminal behaviors. This and other research underscore the importance of interventions that focus on connecting homeless young adults to peers and adults who provide a more pro-social environment and helping them find employment that assists in decreasing their need to engage in illegal activity.