Exploration of arrest activity among homeless young adults in four U.S. cities.

Author:Ferguson, Kristin M.
Position::RESEARCH NOTE - Report

Research suggests that in comparison with their housed peers, homeless young adults have disproportionately greater involvement in criminal activity, including theft, property offenses, and illicit substance use (Baer, Peterson, & Wells, 2004; Thompson, Jun, Bender, Ferguson, & Pollio, 2010). Because 20% to 30% of the nearly 2 million homeless young people have arrest histories (O'Grady & Gaetz, 2004; Whitbeck, 2009), a conservative estimate translates to 150,000 homeless young people encountering the criminal justice system each year. These estimates are cause for societal and economic concern because criminal involvement among homeless young adults is associated with unemployment and labor market exclusion (O'Grady & Gaetz, 2004) and chronic adult homelessness (Tyler & Johnson, 2006).

Previous studies have suggested that homeless young people become more estranged from conventional institutions and prosocial groups the longer they remain on the streets (Thompson & Pollio, 2006). Those who have been homeless longer are also more likely than those who have been homeless for shorter durations to experience greater transience (Ferguson, Jun, Bender, Thompson, & Pollio, 2010). Geographic mobility prohibits bonding to prosocial institutions, such as family, school, and employment, and encourages interactions with other homeless peers that facilitate further acculturation to the streets (Gaetz & O'Grady, 2002). There is evidence that substance abuse is more likely with increased length of homelessness, societal estrangement, and affiliation with substance-using peers (Johnson, Whitbeck, & Hoyt, 2005). Young people who are addicted to drugs and embedded in a street lifestyle often turn to panhandling, theft, survival sex, and other survival strategies to finance their addictions (Baron, 2009; Farabee, Shen, Hser, Grella, & Anglin, 2001). These activities may serve as a gateway to more serious forms of crime (Tolan, Gorman-Smith, & Loeber, 2000). Finally, certain demographic variables, such as gender, may increase the risk of engaging in criminal behavior, with male runaway youths being significantly more likely than female runaway youths to commit criminal activity (Kempf-Leonard & Johansson, 2007). This review thus suggests that chronically homeless young adults who are disaffiliated from conventional institutions, rely on support from peers, and are embedded in the street economy may engage in criminal activity for economic survival (Tyler & Johnson, 2006).

The present study extends understanding of homeless young people's criminal behavior (Baron, 2009; Gaetz & O'Grady, 2002) in three important ways. First, limited information exists concerning the process by which homeless young people engage in criminal behavior while riving on the streets. Thus, this study identifies potential pathways from length of time homeless to arrest activity by exploring transience, substance use disorder, and survival strategies as potential mediating factors. Studies to date have not examined both direct and indirect relationships among predictors of homeless young peoples' criminal activity. Second, previous research has demonstrated that homeless young people engage in criminal activity but has not focused on actual arrests. Studying criminal arrests allows for investigation of the factors that lead youths to the attention of the authorities, which has implications for prevention of youths' further involvement in the criminal justice system. Finally, prior studies of homeless youths' criminal activity have included samples from one or two cities or several cities within one region (O'Grady & Gaetz, 2004; Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Bao, 2000). The study examined correlates of arrest activity in a sample of homeless young adults drawn from four U.S. cities across disparate regions.

On the basis of this literature, it is hypothesized that greater arrest activity will be reported by homeless young adults who have been homeless for longer (versus shorter) durations, are more (versus less) transient, meet criteria for substance use disorder, use survival strategies to earn an income, and are male. Assuming these risk factors are interrelated and increase risk for illegal behaviors (Baron, 2009), we speculated that length of time homeless will indirectly predict arrest activity, as mediated through transience, substance use disorder, and survival strategies.


Research Settings

For this cross-sectional, comparative study of homeless young adults, researchers from Los Angeles, California; Denver, Colorado; New Orleans, Louisiana; and St. Louis, Missouri, secured participation from host agencies providing care to homeless young people. Agencies were...

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