Abstract: The Spatial Topology of Violence and Safety for Youth Experiencing Homelessness (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

The Spatial Topology of Violence and Safety for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 9, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
G. Allen Ratliff, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Marguerita Lightfoot, PhD, Professor, University of California, San Francisco, CA
Sherilyn Adams, MSW, Executive Director, Larkin Street Youth Services, San Francisco, CA
Colette Auerswald, MD, Associate Professor, University of California, Berkeley, CA

Youth experiencing homelessness (YEH) experience high rates of multiple types of victimization (e.g. physical, emotional, property loss). Contributing to this vulnerability are high rates of risk factors leading to victimization (e.g. mental illness, substance use) and barriers to protective factors against victimization (e.g. social support). Existing research has focused on the interpersonal contexts and antecedents of violence experienced by YEH. Little is known about the spaces of violence and safety for YEH. This study aims to explore the spatial dynamics affecting exposure to violence and access to safety of YEH.


We conducted 43 semi-structured interviews in San Francisco with youth ages 15-24 who had experienced homelessness in the previous six months, recruited from street sites and programs in five diverse neighborhoods. We employed a Youth Participatory Action Research model to construct our research questions and inform the design of research instruments and our implementation. A team of youth were employed as project staff, informing project design, conducting interviews, and participating in data analysis. The interview data were coded using modified grounded theory.


Interviewees described categories of spaces of violence and safety: 1) outdoor, public spaces (e.g., parks, sidewalks); 2) spaces of service, (e.g., drop-in centers, libraries, hospitals); and 3) private residential or commercial spaces. Only libraries were consistently identified as safe spaces. No other spaces were exclusively described as spaces of violence or safety. Outdoor spaces are the only spaces YEH are able to regularly inhabit with public access to water and restrooms; however, public spaces are heavily regulated by law enforcement enforcing laws that criminalize sitting or sleeping in public spaces. Service spaces are complex in their dynamics with YEH: respondents identified service spaces as some of the only places of safety for YEH, but service spaces can exacerbate violence through interactions with other YEH and service staff. Service spaces non-specific to YEH, such as hospitals, are described as ill-equipped to address the unique needs of YEH. Private spaces are seen as the least predictable spaces for YEH but also spaces with a chance to yield increased safety. Private property is rarely safe for YEH: interactions with private spaces frequently lead to law enforcement interactions and other interpersonal conflict; however, when YEH are welcome in private spaces they are able to access levels of psychological and physical safety that are unachievable in other spaces.


The results of the study describe spatial interactions of violence and safety for YEH. Criminalization of homelessness heightens the experiences of violence and decreases access to safety and basic needs resources for YEH. Service providers are recognized as sources of resources and support, but consequences of peer and staff interactions can lead to violence or restrict access to safety. Private property owners who welcome YEH provide safer access to basic needs and an improved sense of social inclusion, although this inclusion is rare. Policy addressing the needs of YEH should consider the spatial dynamics of violence, paying particular attention to the ways policies restrict safe spaces for YEH.