Adolescents, Homelessness, And Substance Abuse

By Fred Dyer, Ph.D., CADC

homeless boy on street

In any discussion around homelessness it is necessary to address poverty. Research on adolescent risks factors reminds us that extreme economic deprivation is a risk for substance use, difficulty with self-regulation and impulsivity, and of course, homelessness. Before continuing, it is important to identify who the homeless youth are. According to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which was reauthorized as a Title X, Part C of the No Child Left Behind Act (PL107-110): The term “homeless children and youth means:

• Individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence—which includes children and youth who share the housing of other persons because of loss of housing, economic difficulty, or other similar reasons; those living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds because they lack alternative adequate accommodations, those living in temporary housing, such as emergency or transitional shelters, being abandoned in hospitals, or waiting to be placed in foster care.

• Additionally, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act includes youth whose primary nighttime residence is a public or private place not designed for general use as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings. With the aforementioned terms, it is necessary to consider that more than an estimated 1/6 to 1/7 million adolescents join the ranks of runaways and homeless each year. This particular youth is referred to as an unaccompanied youth, which can be divided into the following subgroups:

• Runaway – homeless youth who’s stayed away at least overnight without parents’ or guardian’s position.

• “Throwaways” – adolescents who left home because parents encouraged them to leave or locked them out.

• Independent youths who feel that they have no homes to return to due to irreconcilable familial conflicts or have lost contact with their families.

The above list would not be complete without referencing the impact of mental illness or substance use on parenting practices and styles, as well as youth who have been sexually or emotionally maltreated. Homeless youth who have been exposed to familial substance use are at risk for using due to modeling reinforced behaviors of family members.

Additionally, adolescents on the streets may begin to experience the coping motive of using alcohol and drugs as a means of distraction and of survival in the streets. In other words, their alcohol and drug use places them at a greater risk for harder drugs, i.e., heroin, methamphetamines, LSD, whether securing or using. However, for the using adolescent, that consideration is miniscule in light of what they believe and feel and what their experiences were at home (i.e. sexual abuse, emotional maltreatment, violence perpetrated against them interpersonally, and then as co-victims, and lack of emotional attachment and accessibility, and a lack of everyday basic needs). The end result is that the adolescent runs away from home and is out on the street, using alcohol and drugs.

It is imperative for substance abuse counselors, social workers, youth advocates, teachers, and anyone working with youth who may have in their own youth run away or in their adult years have experienced homelessness to focus on how to assist the adolescent who runs away in the here and now.

For many adolescents, the longer that they are out on the streets, the more likely they are to adapt to the culture, ways, and people on the street and join with other homeless adolescents (isn’t that adolescence?) in an effort to survive, get by, and get through.

The question going forward is what engagement and treatment issues are necessary in order to help and/or facilitate services for the substance using adolescent, remembering that homelessness exposes youth to significantly higher risk for trauma and substance use. Treatment goals must focus on beginning to transition out of being homeless and into a physical and emotional place where more targeted treatment for substance use and corresponding problems can begin.

Intervening with homeless youth has been characterized as cross-cutting work. When assessing and treating substance use, trauma, and depression, it is important to recognize that these youth are members of a unique cultural group that while in the street have similar lifestyles, values, attitudes, dress, and ease of communication. In order to survive, they must learn where to find resources, establish whom to trust, and adapt to social structures of the street economy. Street smarts gained through observation and experience while homeless may not be pro-social behaviors; however, they enable homeless youth to develop competencies to endure their daily existence. For example, these young people may protect themselves from harm by carrying a weapon, avoiding certain places or people, networking with other street-wise peers who can protect them, and may form surrogate families with other street youth—connections that offer all parties involved an increased sense of security and belonging. The following represent services for homeless youth, but it is necessary to remember that this will not take place unless a trusting therapeutic alliance has been formed with the adolescent who is on the street:

• Drop-in centers with case managers

• Emergency shelters with case managers and while in the shelters having safety-seeking sessions.

Case managers are important for helping homeless youth develop linkages to services, resources, and for assisting them with their daily basic needs.

It is important for those working with homeless adolescents with substance using problems to navigate themselves back into living situations that are stable, safe, violence- and drug-free, and where they can work toward building successful lives.

References provided upon Request

Fred Dyer, PhD., CADC, is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer, author and consultant who services juvenile justice/ detention/residential programs, child welfare/foster care agencies, child and adolescent residential facilities, mental health facilities and adolescent substance abuse prevention programs in the areas of implementation and utilization of evidence-based, gender-responsive, culturally competent, and developmentally and age appropriate practices. He can be reached at