Introduction: This study aims to broaden our understanding of the experience of homelessness and unstable housing in youth. While quantitative research highlights risk factors associated with experiencing homelessness as a youth, little qualitative research has been conducted to explore the lived experience of this transition to homelessness or unstable housing and how youth respond to becoming homeless. This study utilizes data from youth descriptions of their experiences to understand the context of the transition to homelessness and how youth manage this transition.

Methods: A qualitative study with a quantitative component was conducted with a nonprobability sample of homeless youth aged 14-24 recruited from shelters, drop-in centers, and magnet events in a large urban area in the Southwest. Four qualitative researchers used content analysis to assess themes that emerged related to transitions to homelessness.

Results: A predominately minority (88%) sample of sheltered (67%) and unsheltered (33%) youth (n=64) described their experience of and responses to transitioning to homelessness. Three main themes emerged relating to transitioning to homelessness; family homelessness, histories of foster care, and non-supportive family processes. Youth described how these experiences manifested and influenced their transition into homelessness. In response to homelessness three dominant themes emerged; self-reliance, hope, and resilience.

Discussion: The data highlight the unique issues of homeless youth and how they respond to circumstantial challenges. While homeless youth experience lifetime adversities that lead to homelessness, they respond to these circumstantial challenges with self-reliance, hope, and maintaining resilience. Interventions aiming to facilitate health behaviors and improve self-sufficiency in homeless youth should tap into these positive responses to improve self-care strategies, service utilization, and help homeless youth reduce risk behaviors.

Key Take Away Points

Family dynamics that may contribute to the risk for youth homelessness are family homelessness, histories of foster care, and non-supportive family processes.

Homeless youth service providers should consider innovative ways to build on the strengths of homeless youth such as their self-reliance, hope, and resilience.


We would like to thank the homeless youth, service providers, and shelter staff for their support in the recruitment of participants and spaces to conduct the focus groups as well as the University of Houston-Downtown Center for Public Service and Family Strengths, the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, and the Homeless Youth Network Houston/Harris County, TX for funding this project.