Risk Factors for Drug Use Among Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Research suggests deviant beliefs and self-efficacy impact whether or not youths and young adults that experience homelessness misuse drugs.

While it’s safe to assume that a significant number of youth experiencing homelessness engage in property crime and illicit drug use at some point, it certainly cannot be said that they all do. Kimberly Tyler, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, considered why one such individual might turn to drugs, and another—under similar circumstances—might not.

In a 2014 study, "The Effect of Victimization, Mental Health, and Protective Factors on Crime and Illicit Drug Use Among Homeless Young Adults," Tyler and two colleagues examined the roles of protective factors among youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. Factors studied included self-efficacy, low deviant beliefs, and religiosity. It is not well-trod ground. “There is a dearth of literature on resiliency (protective factors) among runaway and homeless adolescents because resiliency is difficult to define for this population,” Tyler noted in the study.

Although some of the findings were not particularly encouraging—the more times youth run away from home, the more likely they are to use illicit drugs; males have higher rates of violent crime and illicit drug use; victims of physical abuse are more likely to use illicit drugs—others were more so. Chief among the latter was the finding that those who have lower deviant beliefs are less likely to use drugs.

“Deviant beliefs” are the reflection of how much, or how little, a person thinks societal guidelines apply to his or her life. In the context of this study, those guidelines included such statements as “Rules were meant to be broken” and “I try to get things I want even if I know it’s causing problems for other people,” along with six other measures. Study participants who disagreed most strongly with those statements were the same people who self-reported as not being regular drug users. Tyler controlled for the number of times the study participants ran away. She acknowledged that those who had low deviant values might have come from families with more protective factors or have run away fewer times.

“If they’re leaving [home] once or twice, they’re low risk,” she said, “but some of these kids are leaving five, six, seven times, and they just have more opportunities to make those connections with other high-risk individuals.”

“It’s difficult to gauge the source of the deviant beliefs,” said Tyler, explaining, “They might not have [low deviant belief values] early on, when they’re new to the street, but it might be that that changes over time, or they develop it because they realize they have to survive.”

Religiosity, the second measure Tyler assessed, was not associated with any of the outcomes, regardless of the person's level of religious attendance. Self-efficacy, however, the third measure, was linked positively to crime, as well as to drug use for those youth who reported a history of physical abuse and neglect. Tyler plans to continue researching self-efficacy among this population, including determining who serve as the primary sources of support—whether pastors, teachers, guidance counselors, other family, or friends from home—in the hopes of strengthening a broader network that includes more than just immediate family.

“We think if we can find more positive people in their lives, we can somehow focus on those individuals,” said Tyler, adding that she and her colleagues want youth experiencing homelessness to understand that “These are positive people—‘How do we get you to interact more with those people versus the people on the street?’ ”

The study looked at youth—in the Omaha and Lincoln areas of Nebraska—that were living in shelters and on the streets. Their drugs of choice were primarily marijuana and synthetic cannabis—particularly K2—as well as methamphetamine. Nationwide, the literature shows that one-third of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness report illicit drug use; 75% of them report lifetime alcohol and marijuana use.

Going forward, Tyler hopes to learn more about the difference between self-efficacy, self-esteem, and support levels in the housed, normative population and those among youth experiencing homelessness. She hypothesizes that the two cohorts may share high efficacy levels—the former because they have a better sense of control and positive parenting, the latter as a result of honing their ability to “navigate street life.”

“So little research has actually looked at protective factors because it’s almost secondary,” says Tyler. “Survival is first for these kids, and a lot of things they have to do are deviant, but they do that to survive.”

This article was originally published to highlight the November 2014 theme of Drug Use.

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

Publication Year

Sarah Zobel
Last Updated: 04/19/2016