Exploration of Arrest Activity among Homeless Young Adults in Four U.S. Cities

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).

Publication Date: 
September 26, 2012
Journal Name: 
Social Work Research