A study of homelessness among youths in Homer, Alaska conducted by the Justice Center at University of Alaska Anchorage in 2004 has revealed that family trouble in one form or another is the usual cause behind youths first becoming homeless. While most of those who participated in the study did not remain chronically homeless, some did progress into more a severe type of homelessness, in which the prospect of returning to a family became more remote. The study identified that the needs of those who had been homeless for longer periods differed from those for whom it was a new or short-term event. The study, which the Justice Center undertook at the request of the Child Advocacy Coalition of Homer (CACH), seems to be the most extensive structured look at homelessness in Alaska yet undertaken.
The Center developed and administered a lengthy interview to eighteen Homer youths who were either currently homeless or had been homeless in the past. The interview sought information on demographic characteristics, residential history, alcohol and drug use, income, daily activities, health, legal and safety issues, other youths in Homer, and opinions regarding services. The goals of the project were to document the needs of homeless youths in Homer and to assess the extent to which these needs were being addressed.
How Youths First became Homeless
Certain factors stood out clearly as important causes behind youths initially becoming homeless. When youths were asked what caused their homelessness, eight (47.1%) indicated family problems, six (35.3%) indicated it was their personal choice to become homeless (although these personal choices were often caused by family problems), and three (17.6%) indicated other reasons.
Detailed results are shown in Table 1. In terms of family problems, over half (58.8%) of the youths indicated that they became homeless because they could not get along with their parents. Parental problems included parental divorce, parental absence, parental use of drugs and alcohol, and parental discord. Youths also became homeless because they did not follow parental rules and/or were kicked out by parents. Six youths (35.3%) simply ran away. Verbal abuse was mentioned as a contributor to the youths’ homelessness by seven (41.2%) of the youths. Few youths (11.8%) mentioned physical abuse and none (0%) mentioned sexual abuse as causes of homelessness. Sexual abuse, however, is the least likely victimization to be reported to police, and youths might not have been willing to report it to us. Six youths (35.3%) mentioned the high cost of housing and rent and five youths (29.4%), the lack of employment opportunities. Causes mentioned less frequently included housing eviction, mental health issues, problems with the law, and problems with siblings.
Overall, it was clear that many youths had become homeless in the first place because of problems at home, mostly caused by verbal abuse and an inability or unwillingness to follow parental rules. Although some youths indicated that they became homeless by choice, these choices clearly resulted from problems at home. For these, family counseling was therefore the most important service in avoiding homelessness.
How Some Youths Remained Homeless
Perhaps not surprisingly, the need for family counseling became less noted as homelessness became more severe. Certain youths had progressively distanced themselves from their families to the point where returning home was no longer a reasonable possibility. At that point, family counseling was needed less than employment assistance. Among the youths that we surveyed, lack of employment was the most significant barrier to acquiring permanent housing once returning home was no longer an option. Detailed results are shown in Table 2.
When it was no longer possible to return home, many youths remained homeless because they could not obtain their own housing. As reasons for remaining homeless, six youths (37.5%) identified housing affordability, four youths (25.0%) identified housing availability, two youths (12.5%) identified moving costs, three youths (18.8%) identified transportation costs, five youths (31.3%) indicated they were too young to sign a lease, and four youths (25.0%) indicated they had no rental references.
The problem of housing in Homer may be less one of availability than one of affordability. In general, the housing picture in Homer differs from that of the state as a whole: residents seem to spend a much higher portion of their income on housing. There were 92.5 percent more renter-occupied units costing less than $300 per month in Homer than in Alaska as a whole, but the median household income in Homer was 20.4 percent lower than in the state as a whole, and the percentage of households spending 35 percent or more of their income on housing was much higher in Homer than elsewhere in the state—that is, in Homer there are more people with low incomes who must spend a larger portion of their incomes on housing. While Homer appears to have a number of low-cost housing options when viewed from the perspective of the state as a whole, these may still be too costly for Homer families with low incomes—and for homeless youth.
An adequate income is necessary to gain access to housing, for homeless youths as well as everyone else. Five youths (31.3%) indicated that they remained homeless because they lacked employment.
The inaccessibility of housing, therefore, was not caused by housing availability but by affordability. Youths lacked the employment that was necessary to pay for housing. We can conclude that employment assistance was the most important service needed to avoid remaining chronically homeless.
In addition to the need for family counseling and employment assistance discussed above, homeless youths also expressed a need for drug and alcohol programming and recreational opportunities.
All but two youths (88.2%) had used alcohol in the past, all but three youths (83.3%) had used cigarettes, and all but two youths (88.2%) had used marijuana. The majority of youths (85.7% and 86.7% respectively) started using alcohol and marijuana before becoming homeless. Although a majority reported using alcohol both within the last year and within the last month, none reported daily use. Most (80.0%), however, reported daily use of cigarettes and 38.9 percent reported daily use of marijuana. Of the 18 youths, 11 (61.1%) also reported using other drugs. Although other drug use was common, it was clearly more experimental than the use of alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana. Overall, 7 (38.9%) of the 18 homeless youths felt that they had used alcohol or drugs in ways that had negatively affected their functioning at home or school. Most youths expressed that alcohol and drugs had had a negative psychological impact (e.g., mood changes, depression). Given the prevalence of alcohol and drug use and given that youths recognized the negative impacts that alcohol and drug use have on their lives, homeless youths in Homer might benefit from better prevention and intervention efforts.
When asked what types of services were most needed in Homer, the vast majority (77.8%) expressed a need for places or outdoor locations where youths were welcome. In fact, 50.5 percent of the youths identified this as the most important needed service. No other result from our survey of homeless youths showed as much consistency as the expressed need for additional recreational opportunities.
It is important to note that this survey relies on the youths’ answers and therefore may not match the perceptions of others. From the youths’ point of view, however, recreation was the most important need. Although it may be doubtful that recreational opportunities would prevent homelessness, there is no doubt that youths in Homer lack adequate prosocial recreational opportunities and, as a result, spend much of their time bored or engaged in self-destructive behaviors. This conclusion is corroborated by our survey of available services. Few agencies in Homer provide recreational opportunities for adolescents. Most that do so are schools. This is problematic because (1) these services are available during the school year only and (2) these services are not available for youths not in school. Homeless youths are less likely to be in school and typically experience more problems during the summer, when school programs are not available. Although schools should continue their efforts to provide youth services, other agencies must step in when schools are closed and must provide services to youths that are not in school.
To summarize, the recommendations that emerged from this study were to enhance employment assistance, drug and alcohol programming, family counseling, and recreational opportunities. Employment assistance should be designed to lead youths into productive work that pays enough to afford housing. All services should be developed so that they are also available during the summer, when youths are out of school, and available to all youths, including those who have stopped going to school. We also emphasized the need to keep the cost of these services as low as possible, as most of these youths (and their families) had few financial resources. Finally, we suggested that existing services be better publicized, since few youths were aware of the resources already available.
Results from our survey clearly indicated that the causes of becoming homeless were different than the causes for remaining homeless. As youths slide into more severe forms of homelessness, the focus of assistance efforts must change from prevention to intervention. Successful prevention services would address the causes of becoming homeless while successful intervention services would address those for remaining homeless. Results from our survey indicate that the primary cause for becoming homeless was family problems while the primary cause for remaining homeless was lack of employment at an adequate wage.
Overall, the results from this survey were quite encouraging. There is much that can be done to address youth homelessness. Drug and alcohol counseling, family counseling, and employment assistance are already offered in many Alaskan communities. Unfortunately, youths were not always aware that these services were available, and some youths were disappointed with the quality of the services that were offered. We should strive to enhance these available social services as well as expand recreational opportunities.
André Rosay is an assistant professor at the Justice Center. The report 2004 Census and Survey of Homeless Youths in Homer, Alaska is available on the Justice Center website at http://justice.uaa.alaska.edu.