Homelessness has increased dramatically in the last 20 to 30 years,1
with roughly 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness each year.2
These individuals often suffer from physical and mental health problems, including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, substance use disorders, psychoses, and personality disorders.3–5
The nation as a whole pays a significant price in social and economic costs related to homelessness.6–9
Studies of adult homelessness tend to focus on concurrent correlates, such as substance use, mental health problems, arrest history, and lack of family support,10–16
but they do not help us identify and understand characteristics and conditions occurring earlier in the life course that may increase vulnerability to becoming homeless. Studies using retrospective assessments of early predictors have found that homelessness relates to childhood adversity (e.g., poverty and family problems), problems in school, antisocial and offending behavior, substance use, and mental health problems.16–19
These studies are limited, however, by the use of cross-sectional data with retrospective reports of childhood adversity, use of homeless or institutionalized samples, focus on a limited range of early risk factors, or insufficient consideration of differences within racial groups.
In one of the few prospective studies of homelessness, van Den Bree et al. assessed the relationship between a range of adolescent risk factors and early adult homelessness.20
Findings showed that family relationship quality, school adjustment problems, and experiences of victimization predicted homelessness 5 years later. Studies on adolescent homelessness have also found these factors to be predictive,21–23
although the temporal relationship among these factors is difficult to determine.24
Additional prospective research is needed to explore the impact of risk factors on subsequent homelessness and assess how the influence of these risk factors varies in different populations over long periods of time.
In this study, we build upon the existing research by examining the relationship between adult homelessness and early school and family adversity, mental health, and risk behaviors using prospective data from a 35-year study of a community population of African Americans. Using a developmental approach, we examine childhood and adolescent risk factors and take into consideration interrelationships among factors. This allows us to explore whether individual, social, and structural problems early in life establish vulnerability for later homelessness.
Based on the literature on adolescent and adult homelessness as well as other poor social outcomes, this study examines a diverse array of individual, social, and contextual risks from childhood and adolescence which we hypothesize will increase vulnerability to later homelessness. Specifically, early maladaptive behaviors, psychological problems, weak social bonds (e.g., poor family ties), risk behaviors (e.g., drug use and violence), and structural disadvantage (e.g., poverty, family composition, and mobility) have been associated with poor outcomes, including homelessness.15–36
Running away is an especially important risk factor linked to both adolescent and adult homelessness as well as other problems.19,37,38
Many consider running away to be a proxy for homelessness, particularly if there is no adult supervision and safety is compromised.24,39
A number of studies demonstrate the interrelationships among these risk factors. For example, economic disadvantage has been related to poor family relationships,40–42
early conduct disorders have been linked to poor adolescent school bonds,43–45
and adolescent social bonds are related to adolescent drug use and other antisocial behaviors.40,46–49
Also, family and school bonds, adolescent depression, and substance use have been linked to running away.38,50
We expect to find gender differences in the prevalence of homelessness and in the relationships between risk factors and homelessness. Research on the development of risk behaviors and poor social outcomes has identified gender differences in early predictors. For example, aggressive behavior predicted drug use among males but not females, 46
and females were more responsive than males to family bonds and parental monitoring.29,51
Although some studies have taken gender into account, few studies have examined differences in early risk for homelessness by gender.
In addition to examining early risk factors for homelessness, we will provide estimates of homelessness over time in a community population of African Americans. This is important as there is a lack of research on lifetime homelessness in community populations. Furthermore, African Americans are more disproportionately represented among the homeless than they are among the poor,52
yet the reasons for this are not well understood.
In sum, we aim to determine how multiple childhood and adolescent risk factors relate to later homelessness in a community population of African Americans. Our specific research questions are: (1) What is the prevalence of homelessness in a community population of African Americans? (2) Do childhood risk factors increase the likelihood of homelessness? (3) Does the addition of adolescent family, school, and mental health factors increase the risk? (4) Do adolescent risk behaviors increase the risk for homelessness, taking into account childhood risk factors and adolescent family, school, and mental health factors?, and (5) Does running away predict later homelessness, taking into account other childhood and adolescent risk factors?