For Street Kids The Streets Are Mean, But They May Be Better Than Home

November 19, 1997

It isn't pretty on the streets of Seattle, or any big city, if you are a homeless adolescent. But recent research shows life on the street may be an improvement over what many children face at home.

Every night an estimated 2 million adolescents -- 2,000 of them in Seattle -- roam the streets of America without a permanent place to live. And those numbers are probably on the low side "because it is easy to count kids in shelters, but how do you count kids living under bridges or in abandoned buildings?" asks Ana Mari Cauce, a University of Washington psychology professor, who has been studying homeless street kids for seven years.

The picture of life on the streets for children in the late 20th century drawn from her research is a horrifying one. Violence in the form of physical and sexual abuse are rampant, as are suicide attempts, mental and emotional disorders, and drug and alcohol abuse.

"For adolescent girls living on the street, rape is not a question of if but of when," says Cauce. She found that one-third of the girls under the age of 14 were raped within six weeks of being on the street.

One study, the Seattle Homeless Adolescent Research Project, tracked 304 homeless youths for a year. The project, a joint effort of the UW, YouthCare Inc., the Seattle Mental Health Institute and the Washington state Department of Mental Health, showed:As frightening as it is on the streets, "some kids found conditions there better than living at home, but that's not saying much," Cauce said.

The study also showed that among females, 41 percent said they had been physically abused at home and 47 percent reported sexual abuse. Among males, the percentages were 45 and 19. Eighty-five percent of the adolescents reported that at least one family member had an alcohol or drug problem and 65 percent said at least one family member had been involved in the criminal justice system.

The most frequent reasons for leaving home were physical abuse, 21 percent; violence in the home, 19 percent; drug use by a family member, 12 percent; neglect, 12 percent; not getting along with other family members, 12 percent; conflict with a stepparent, 9 percent; sexual abuse, 7 percent; and family poverty, 7 percent.

"These are kids who fell through all of society's safety nets that we think are in place," noted Cauce. "It is easy to paint parents as evil, but it is tough being the parents of an adolescent. There are all kinds of resources out there for new parents, and we need them, but there isn't a lot of help available for parents of teenagers."

In a follow-up study, Project Passage, Cauce worked with YouthCare, a local agency, to test a pair of year-long intervention programs on 150 homeless adolescents at a downtown Seattle center operated by the agency.

One program was YouthCare's regular approach that provided a range of services with case managers who are experienced in working with homeless youth but who have few advance degrees or formal mental health training. These managers typically handle 20 to 30 cases at a time. The other program was a new intensive intervention program run by case managers with advance degrees, little field experience and a case load limited to 12. It was designed to provide more customized service and to link youths to such community resources as appropriate housing, health services and educational or vocational training.

Cauce said the study showed that the intensive intervention worked well for girls, but wasn't very effective with boys. Adolescent boys, who generally distrust adults, may ;just relate better to the "street smart" workers in the regular program than to the young, idealistic case workers, she believes.

"What you hope to do is keep the boys alive until maturity kicks in at some point and they are ready to talk to you," said Cauce. "Girls, on the other hand, particularly those who are depressed or have experienced abuse, seem to benefit from the intensive program more."

In addition, she noted that for a lot of girls, getting pregnant is a big spur to leave the streets. The girls want to protect their child and become more receptive to assistance.

Cauce is now involved in a third study, this one to track the natural course of adolescent homelessness without an intervention. She and her co-investigators also hope to discover what factors trigger some adolescents to leave the streets and adopt safer and more stable lifestyles.

"There was a time when homelessness was a major concern in our society, but we didn't fix the problem," said Cauce. "We have a short attention span with these kinds of problems and move on to other ones, particularly when there are no easy solutions. My fear is that if the number of homeless children is increasing in a time of economic boom, what happens when there is an economic downturn?

"We have to wonder what will be the cost of not doing anything. These street kids will wind up looking an awful lot like their parents if we don't intervene. Children 13 and 14 are still young enough so we can break the cycle before it affects another generation. We have no magic bullet or cure that will put these adolescents back together, but we can't afford to give up."

University of Washington

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