The present study investigates the nature of homelessness among at-risk youth transitioning into adulthood. Current policies use multiple definitions to determine eligibility for homeless services among adolescents and emerging adults. Conflicting criteria demarcate different thresholds along an assumed continuum ranging from frequent mobility to living on the streets. Multiple eligibility criteria impede cohesive service provision and prevention efforts. Little research tests this continuum conceptualization, while developmental research suggests subgroups better capture homelessness in emerging adulthood. The present study leveraged prospective data on a national sample of child welfare-involved adolescents—a population vulnerable to homelessness in emerging adulthood.
Youth report experiences of housing instability and homelessness 18–36 months after child welfare investigation, as well as adaptive functioning in multiple behavioral domains. Latent variable analyses test for a continuum of housing insecurity with reliable thresholds versus a typology capturing subgroups of co-occurring patterns of housing instability.
Results show little support for a continuum of risk; instead, three subgroups of housing instability emerge. The largest group, ‘Stably Dependent’ (83%) youth, live with family without attaining education and employment experiences necessary for independence. A smaller group labeled ‘Transients’ (12%) exhibit multiple housing and behavior problems typical of runaway youth. The smallest group, ‘Unstably Independent’ (5%), youth struggled to maintain housing in the absence of supportive adults.
Findings affirm a developmental conceptualization of homelessness and identify opportunities for screening and prevention.