Method: A purposive sample of 20 youth seeking homeless drop-in services in Los angles were interviewed during the fall of 2015. To identify eligible youth, a screener recruitment method was used and youths who disclosed that they were ever or are currently a gang member, or had been close friends, family or romantic partners that were in a gang were invited to participate in the study. Grounded theory and open-coding techniques were used to analyze the data. The sample consisted of 7 females and 13 males. The sample was 50% African American, 25% white, 20% Latino and 5% Native American. The majority of the sample identified as former gang-members (n=8), however three youths were currently involved in a gang. The remaining sample was closely affiliated with gangs via their community, an intimate partner or biological sibling. Age ranged from 19-25.
Results: Analyses in the qualitative data revealed several themes that were most relevant to the intersection of youth homelessness and gang involvement: first experience of homelessness co-occurs with gang involvement; gangs provide services and perceived support to homeless youth; gun and weapon involvement, violence and death are prevalent experiences among gang involved homeless youth; ambivalent attitude toward gangs; transitioning out of gangs as a unique challenge for homeless youth Each theme is discussed and offer quotes to illustrate participant’s direct experiences. Case vignettes illustrate differences across different levels of gang involvement including: current gang member, former gang member, intimate partner, close affiliate and distant affiliate.
Discussion: The findings of this study provide insight regarding the unique experiences of homeless youth that also have some experience of gang involvement. Gangs seemed to provide similar types of support, both tangible and intangible, that may be missing in the young person’s lives, such as family support, positive role models, or support that may come from community organizations. In many cases, participants described gangs as providing informal community type support services including shelter, food, monetary support. This finding has many implications for policy and practice especially on a larger systemic level. Supportive services in communities may be lacking or they are limited. Service providers for homeless youth and gang involved youth should be aware of the intersection between the two, specifically while considering the critical milestones of becoming homeless, gang initiation moment, and transitioning out of a gang.