Background: In contrast with chronically homeless adults, youth experiencing homelessness (YEH) often cycle in and out of various living situations, including “couch-surfing” (i.e., temporarily staying with friends or family), sleeping outside, or staying in shelter programs. Among the estimated 3.5 million YEH in the U.S. each year, approximately 20% couch-surf in unstable or unsafe housing situations. Despite their prevalence, couch-surfing YEH are often denied access to homeless services due to federal homeless definitions that exclude precariously housed youth. This presentation examines the living situations of YEH across historically marginalized groups and the implications for advancing equity in the homeless services system.
Methods: Homeless Management Information System administrative data collected between January 2015 and May 2017 (n=10,922) were collected by service providers in 16 communities across the U.S. Data featured initial housing assessments administered to YEH. Multinomial logistic regressions were used to explore demographic characteristics, risk and protective factors, and reasons for homelessness associated with specific living situations among YEH between the ages of 14 and 24. Models estimated the relative risk YEH would couch-surf or sleep outside rather than stay in a shelter.
Results: Most YEH (76.3%) stayed in shelter while 7.1% couch-surfed and 16.6% slept outside. Approximately 31.0% identified as Black and 21.3% identified as other youth of color. Youth identifying as LGBTQ+ represented 31.0% of the sample. Overall, Black youth were more likely to couch-surf (RRR=2.04,p<.001) relative to White youth, as were LGBTQ+ youth (RRR=1.27,p=0.4) compared to their straight cisgender peers. Black LGBTQ+ youth were nearly twice as likely to couch-surf compared to White LGBTQ+ youth (RRR=1.98,p<.001). Both Black youth and LGBTQ+ youth who experienced homelessness due to an abusive relationship were more likely to couch-surf (RRR=1.72,p=.01 and RRR=2.01,p<.01, respectively). Black youth and LGBTQ+ youth who reported either behavioral health issues or being physically attacked since experiencing homelessness were both significantly less likely to couch-surf and more likely to sleep on the streets than to stay in a shelter.
Conclusions: Findings highlight disparities in the living situations of Black and LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness. Findings suggest that while Black and LGBTQ+ youth may leverage personal support networks for temporary housing under some circumstances, the safety and stability of these arrangements is often precarious. Their increased likelihood of couch-surfing or sleeping on the streets relative to staying in a shelter also point toward barriers faced by Black and LGBTQ+ youth in accessing services compared to their straight, cisgender, White peers. In addition to discrimination and victimization experienced in shelter environments and overall disillusionment with service systems, Black and LGBTQ+ youth face risk of further marginalization within the homeless services system as they are more likely to "couch-surf"—a housing situation frequently excluded from eligibility criteria for accessing permanent supportive and rapid rehousing resources.