Family instability in adolescence presents a prominent risk for homelessness in emerging adulthood. Youth without a place to return home face greater consequences of normative exploration; difficulty making utility or rent payments have direr consequences because of unreliable family support. At the extreme end of instability, a growing body of research demonstrates a link between maltreatment and youth homelessness. In particular, youth who ‘age-out’ of foster care – or leave the system at the age of emancipation (18 in most states) – show disproportionately high rates of homelessness in young adulthood. Rates vary depending on sample and study characteristics with estimates of homelessness in young adulthood between 13% and 50% of aged out youth.
Despite descriptive evidence, the mechanisms of youth homelessness remain unclear. Associations between family separations and homelessness may be confounded by pre-existing characteristics of the teen, family, or community. The complex nature of housing dynamics plus the relatively low base rate of homelessness challenges rigorous tests of theories of change.
Investigating response to interventions that target risks for youth homelessness provides an opportunity to understand the malleability of underlying mechanisms. Although not by design, the child welfare system addresses individual-level and family-levels risks for homeless. Out-of-home placement provides a two-pronged intervention focused on development of independent living skills and family stabilization. Prior research shows little promise for independent living to prevent homelessness.
The present study uses a quasi-experiment to test the hypothesis that family stabilization in late adolescence prevents homelessness. Data were drawn from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW), a longitudinal study of children 0-17 years (N = 5872) who came into contact with the child welfare system between February 2008 and April 2009. Structured interviews with older adolescents (n =243) collected information on homelessness and other risks at the time of investigation, 24-, and 36-months later.
Results suggest high rates of homelessness; 15.3% experienced literal homelessness, which more than triples rates in the general population. Foster youth who returned home after the receipt of supportive services exhibit lower probabilities (OR = .12) of homelessness in young adulthood compared to both youth who aged-out and youth who never entered the foster care system. Differences exceed other risks for homelessness and demonstrate a response to intervention. Findings suggest that bolstering families as youth transition to adulthood represent a more promising approach to prevent homelessness.