Fighting to Live: Self-Esteem and Homeless Youth

Young people experiencing homelessness often struggle with self-esteem, which puts them at risk for substance use, suicide, and other negative outcomes.

Self-esteem is important because that’s how one measures self-worth. According to Jane Mosley's paper, Poverty, Welfare Receipt and Adolescent Self-Esteem at the Center for Demography and Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison - 1995 (PDF | 51.3 KB), self-esteem has three components. The components include:

  • Reflected appraisals (that is, how one is viewed or evaluated by society)
  • Self-perception
  • Social comparison

"Some people measure their self-worth by what they wear, whom they associate with, the money in their bank account, and even by the look of their significant other," Mosley observes.

Being a teenager, and reflecting on my life as a youth of color, social comparison was very important to me. I can imagine this must be a tremendous challenge for young people experiencing homelessness to overcome when they feel as though they’ve hit rock bottom. There are many things that play a role into why this happens. For some, a very traumatic and emotionally devastating experience to their self-esteem is like what termites are to wood—slowly eating away at the self until there is very little left. For others, what they do to survive on the streets could have a very negative impact upon their self-esteem.

Fatal injury data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shown that the suicide rate for blacks of all ages was slightly less than half of the overall U.S. rate. Suicide was the 16th leading cause of death for blacks of all ages and the third leading cause of death for young black males ages 15 to 24. At that vulnerable time when youth are struggling to build their self-image, rock bottom might feel insurmountable. Research shows family support, peer support, and community connectedness can be the most significant protective factors in the lives of black males.

When self-esteem is gradually eroded, it leaves a void. Unfortunately, this leaves the person open to other negative influences that seek to fill the empty space. According to a report, The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Special Commission on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth at the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice - 2013 (PDF | 914 KB), students who are homeless have higher chances of joining a gang, using alcohol and drugs, experiencing depression, and attempting or committing suicide than their housed counterparts. With self-esteem very low, some turn to other negative influences because although what they are doing isn’t right, they provide a self-made system of support that they feel they have not received otherwise.

Self-worth is important for many people experiencing homelessness. Outsiders often seek to label young men in their current circumstances, but what they fail to understand is this is what they do to survive and how they try to handle their pain. Experiencing homeless really does a number on one’s self-esteem.

Many organizations and individual advocates are now taking a stand to support young people experiencing homelessness, which is a reason to keep on pushing even when the odds are stacked up against them. There are many differences among black men in America. I am not talking about a monolithic group. We are all on a journey and are walking together in a difficult world. However, research and strategies being developed to support black male adolescents and shepherded by educators, social workers, and youth service providers are gaining traction. In February 2014, President Obama announced the launch of a national effort, My Brother's Keeper, to bolster the lives of black males who have been disproportionately robbed of their boyhood. It’s not too late to make a difference.

This article was originally published to highlight the June 2014 theme of Men's Behavioral Health.

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Kevin Lilly
Last Updated: 07/31/2019