University of Denver Professor, Kimberly Bender, Writes about her Research on Preventing Victimization among Homeless Youth


Homeless youth often leave home as a last resort to escape abusive home environments. In collaboration with Drs. Kristin Ferguson (Arizona State University) and Sanna Thompson (University of Texas, Austin – retired), my multi-site study of 601 homeless youth in Denver, Los Angeles, and Austin, found approximately 80% of youth experienced physical abuse and 36% sexual abuse prior to leaving home.

Unfortunately, once on the streets, youth face new victimization risks, such as robbery, assault, and sexual assault. Across the sites in our study, more than 83% experienced direct victimization while 78% witnessed victimization of others or were threatened with violence. Much of the violence experienced while homeless is severe and leads to significant physical and emotional injury. Unfortunately, those youth with the most significant trauma histories are most at risk for new experiences of victimization on the streets.

One explanation for the link between significant childhood trauma and later victimization is that early chronic abuse normalizes violent behavior and makes it difficult to detect new risks when they are encountered. For example, a youth who ran away from a violent home where they witnessed domestic violence may later miss red flags that a new acquaintance is being controlling, jealous, or emotionally abusive.

Our 145 qualitative interviews across the three cities helped us to identify the situations that place youth at risk for victimization and to better understand youths’ methods for detecting risk. Youth described the following risk cues:

  • Internal risk cues, consisting of physiological and physical sensations that indicated something was not right, such as tightness in their stomachs, racing hearts, chills;
  • Interpersonal cues, consisting of reading other people’s body language, mannerisms, and invasive questioning; and
  • Environmental cues, consisting of situations such as dark, isolated, and unfamiliar locations associated with danger.

Many youth stated that, although they used these cues to detect risk, danger could occur anytime and anywhere, suggesting that they often did not identify cues before victimization was unavoidable.

Safety Awareness for Empowerment (SAFE)

Safety Awareness for Empowerment (SAFE) is a mindfulness-based cognitive skill-building intervention aimed at training homeless youth to better detect danger cues and then problem solve and act assertively to avoid such dangers. The intervention uses mindfulness techniques to augment youths’ abilities to attend to internal, interpersonal, and environmental risk cues associated with victimization. The model was adapted from Dr. Anne DePrince’s Healthy Adolescent Relationship Project to reduce intimate partner violence among teen girls in child welfare. We modified the intervention to address risk cues identified through our previous qualitative and quantitative findings. Through a small randomized control trial with a total of 74 youth, SAFE was pilot tested and shown to increase risk detection abilities and improve some aspects of mindfulness.

Next Steps

A key factor associated with victimization is substance use. Youth who use substances are less able to detect danger cues and to defend themselves. At the same time, youth who have experienced trauma and victimization report more often using substances to self-medicate. SAFE, adapted to address these two interrelated problems, is now being tested with a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This larger 3-year trial will determine whether youth randomly assigned to participate in SAFE are less likely, compared to youth who receive usual shelter services, to experience victimization and use substances over a 6-month period.

Although victimization is quite elevated among homeless youth, it is not inevitable. We hope to empower youth to develop skills to keep themselves safe and healthy.

bender_kimberlyBlog Post Author: Kimberly Bender, PhD, Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver

Kimberly’s area of expertise is psychosocial intervention for homeless youth. In addition to leading the research projects described in this blog post, she has published extensively in the areas of substance use, trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder, and broader mental health concerns experienced by homeless youth. Additionally, Dr. Bender prioritizes training students as research team members on her community-engaged research projects and has been recognized with several student-nominated awards.

Like this post?
Check out this one on Robin Petering’s experiences teaching yoga to homeless youth.

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University of Houston, YouthCount 2.0!: Counting and Surveying Homeless Youth in Harris County

Members of the YouthCount 2.0! Data Collection Team

Young people are often missed in traditional point in time counts that rely on visual identification, because they don’t want to appear homeless and are less visible on the streets. In addition, they often double-up with friends, rather than seeking services at shelters where they would be easy to identify and count. Sarah Narendorf, Assistant Professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, led a project team that included Diane Santa Maria at the University of Texas School of Nursing and Yoonsook Ha from Boston University to find, count, and survey homeless youth, ages 13-24, in Harris County, Texas in November 2014. YouthCount 2.0! was a response to calls from the Houston community to pilot new methods for finding homeless youth and to learn more about their service needs.  The project was funded by the Greater Houston Community Foundation, Fund to End Homelessness.

YouthCount 2.0! used several new strategies to find and count homeless youth:

  1. An extended count period of 4 weeks.
  2. Respondent-driven sampling, asking youth to recruit others they knew in similar situations.
  3. Surveying at shelters, through street outreach, and at magnet events – at events designed for homeless youth and those that were not specific to homeless youth but where youth in unstable housing might be identified.
  4. Use of social work and nursing students to assist in surveying.
  5. Involvement of homeless and formerly homeless youth to help with locating and identifying youth.
  6. Expanded eligibility criteria beyond that used for adults by HUD – youth were counted if they were staying with friends or family, but not sure where they would stay in 30 days.
  7. Use of homeless management information system (HMIS) data to identify service locations we should visit to conduct the survey.
  8. Partnerships with service providers and collaboration with a community advisory board to guide the data collection and interpretation of results.

During the 4-week count period, the study team visited 47 different locations including shelters, magnet events, and street outreach locations. A total of 74 volunteers assisted with the count, 60 were social work students who received extra-credit in their research class. The project surveyed 420 youth directly and added another 212 youth to the count number through reviewing HMIS data.  Detailed data about the youth was obtained through a self-administered survey with over 100 questions that took 15-20 minutes to complete.

Through the two counts, there were successes and challenges that can help others looking to better count homeless youth.

Successes included:

  • Use of social work students. The students learned a lot about the situations of homeless youth and were exposed to service agencies and communities of which they hadn’t been aware.
  • The extended count period and expanded eligibility that enabled us to find out about youth that would not have been included in previous counts.
  • One Voice Texas, an advocacy organization, was part of the community advisory board, which enabled a smooth connection for results to be used in legislative session. YouthCount 2.0! data on homeless youth were noticed by legislators in relation to two different bills that passed into law.

Challenges included:

  • Respondent-driven sampling did not yield many new participants. It appears that the logistics were prohibitive. Asking youth that are focused on survival to remember to recruit friends to a study just didn’t work well unless it could be very immediate.
  • Some youth populations were clearly missed. The survey was available in Spanish, but none of the youth identified preferred to take the survey in Spanish. It was also difficult to connect with youth that were identified by schools. Events immediately after school nearby failed to attract many of those identified within the schools in spite of close collaborations with homeless liaisons to encourage participation.

For more information on YouthCount 2.o! visit the project website, which also includes a full report of the findings. The study team is currently writing-up the study and results for submission to a peer-reviewed journal and talking about next steps for YouthCount 3.0!

Blog Post Author: Sarah Narendorf, Assistant Professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work

Like this post?
Check out this one on how the University of Houston is addressing LGBTQ youth homelessness.

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Creating Transgender-Affirming Homeless Service Agencies and Systems for Youth

“When you center the experience of the most marginalized, you create a system that better serves all.” – Jama Shelton, Deputy Executive Director of the True Colors Fund

Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. This number is astonishingly high considering that the rate is only about 7% in the general youth population. Adequately serving LGBTQ homeless youth is an imperative, as is preventing them from becoming homeless in the first place. However, not all subgroups of the LGBTQ community have the same needs and face the same challenges.

I recently attended a webinar hosted by the New York Coalition for Homeless Youth on creating transgender-affirming systems for homeless youth. The webinar was presented by Jama Shelton, Deputy Executive Director of the True Colors Fund, and provided a wealth of information relevant to homeless-specific and other services.

Transgender can be used as an umbrella term that captures multiple experiences of having one’s self-identity not conform to traditional male/female gender labels (including gender-queer, gender non-conforming, and gender expansive identities). Transgender youth commonly become homeless or runaway as a result of conflict in the home, often related to their gender identity or gender expression. Transgender youth tend to be homeless longer than other youth and commonly experience: a lack of social support; significant mental and physical health problems; barriers to accessing housing and employment; and barriers to accessing gender transition supports and services.

Some key priorities for organizations looking to become more transgender affirming are to:

  • Develop inclusive policies, procedures, paperwork, and spaces, even if you have yet to serve a client that openly identifies as transgender;
  • Develop clear inclusion statements that include gender and apply to staff and clients;
  • Create programs that provide transgender clients with respite from an often unaccepting world; and
  • Think through timelines and program requirements when working with transgender clients to consider if they are appropriate.

In addition to these broad ideas, Jama discussed some of the challenges faced by transgender homeless youth, followed by suggested solutions for organizations to implement. I’ve summarized some of these below.


  • Not wanting to access services or shelter due to fear of being singled out, victimized, etc.
  • Service providers and programs that are uninformed and/or insensitive to transgender youths’ needs and experiences.
  • Staff/peers deliberately using incorrect names or pronouns.
  • Lack of access to appropriate restrooms and facilities.
  • Having to conform to dress codes that differ by gender.
  • Confidentiality concerns, such as being “outed” without consent.
  • Lack of appropriate role models.


  • Educate and train staff about the needs and experiences of transgender youth, and provide them with skills to effectively work with transgender clients, including consent and confidentiality processes.
  • Identify and familiarize staff about local community-based supports for transgender youth.
  • Include gender when thinking about organization/program staff diversity.
  • Record and use youth’s preferred name and correct pronouns.
  • Create all-gender communal bathrooms or gender-neutral single bathrooms.
  • Allow youth to dress in a way that matches their gender identity.
  • Offer gender-neutral clothing and avoid organizing clothing donations by gender.
  • Offer/identify transgender-specific support groups.

The True Colors Fund conducts community organizing, public awareness, policy advocacy, training, and research activities all aimed at the prevention and reduction of homelessness among LGBTQ youth. They also coordinate the Forty to None Network, a free online support community available to anyone who supports this mission.

Thank you to the New York Coalition for Homeless Youth for hosting this informative webinar. The Coalition is a statewide network of organizations that serve homeless and runaway youth, and this webinar is an example of the type of training providers are able to receive through their membership in the coalition. If you or your organization work with homeless or runaway youth in New York State, please consider joining the coalition.

Blog Post Author: Amanda Aykanian, Research and Project Lead at the National Center

CSU Sacramento Professor and Students Help Conduct Project on Transient Homelessness

Research Team: Antoine Watkins (MSW II), Dr. Baiocchi, Russ Read (MSW II) and Matthew Foy (sociology MA)
Research Team: Antoine Watkins (MSW II), Dr. Baiocchi, Russ Read (MSW II) and Matthew Foy (sociology MA)

Dr. Arturo Baiocchi (assistant professor of social work at California State University, Sacramento), along with graduate students Matthew Foy (sociology), Russ Reed, and Antoine Watkins (social work) are helping to conduct a community needs assessment in Sacramento’s River District. The project, a collaboration with Sacramento Steps Forward (SSF), has a focus on homeless adults who have recently traveled to Sacramento.

SSF connects individuals experiencing homelessness to a wide array of housing services and programs in the community. In January, SSF began a new street outreach and coordinated entry program—Common Centsto engage chronically homeless individuals.  Equipped with an online-assessment tool, outreach workers are able to quickly assess individuals and coordinate their entry into appropriate programs. Since its launch, the program has interfaced with over 1,200 individuals and assisted over 200 transition into a housing program. More broadly, SSF has helped house over 2,000 individuals over the last year.

Matthew Foy, sociology graduate student, conducting in-person interviews with individuals at a homeless encampment near the bus-station.
Matthew Foy, sociology graduate student, conducting in-person interviews with individuals at a homeless encampment near the bus-station.

SSF recently asked Dr. Baiocchi and his students to help facilitate an exploratory project to understand motivations and factors that bring homeless individuals to the River District and Sacramento more broadly.  Because of its proximity to bus and train stations, as well as some service providers, the River District is often perceived to be an area where homeless individuals congregate. However, little research or data exist to support this assumption. Moreover, it is unclear why some individuals experiencing housing instability travel to Sacramento, and whether many, if any, do so to access services in the city.

The project is being conducted in conjunction with SSF’s outreach efforts in the River District during November and December of 2015 and will explore the following questions:

  1. What proportion of individuals contacted by SSF in the River District have traveled to Sacramento within the last 30 days?
  2. What motivates individuals to travel to Sacramento (e.g. seeking employment, passing through, central location, access to services, etc.)?
  3. What are the perceptions that individuals have of Sacramento, with respect to available services and supports?
  4. What new types of services and supports would these individuals benefit from, and can SSF provide these benefits?

The project hopes to explore the complex realities underpinning the ‘magnet myth’ of social services; the perception that increasing access to services attracts more homeless people to an area. More broadly, the project hopes to shed light on the motives/factors that contribute to transient homelessness in Northern California, particularly with respect to housing-insecure young adults traveling by bus and the challenges they experience accessing services and supports. Insights gleaned from the project will also help SSF more effectively tailor its outreach services to address the short and long term needs of its clientele, particularly those that have recently traveled to Sacramento.

Interior of greyhound bus station through which some individuals travel to Sacramento.
Interior of greyhound bus station through which some individuals travel to Sacramento.

Dr. Baiocchi and his students are helping train SSF staff on research methodologies associated with survey design, sampling, interviewing protocols, and qualitative approaches. Students will also be helping SSF contextualize their findings with respect to the research literature on issues related to transience, homelessness, and young adults. Students will help SSF facilitate a public presentation of key findings of the project to the community in Spring of 2016.

Blog Post Author: Arturo Baiocchi, PhD, Assistant Professor of Social Work at California State University, Sacramento

University of Houston: Creating the Blueprint to Reduce LGBTQ Youth Homelessness

Alan Dettlaff, Dean of the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, in partnership with the University of Illinois at Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, leads a new project to reduce homelessness among LGBTQ youth.file6171245785775

Of the estimated 1.6 to 1.7 million youth (ages 12 to 17) who experience homelessness each year, up to 40% identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or questioning (LGBTQ). These youth are also disproportionately youth of color. Practices have begun to emerge that have shown promise in responding to the needs of LGBTQ homeless youth. However, information on these practices has not been systematically collected, and no unifying practice models have emerged. To facilitate positive outcomes for LGBTQ homeless youth, additional information is needed on these emerging practices, as well as information on culturally responsive screening and assessment tools, training models for runaway and homeless youth (RHY) providers, and examples of policies and programs that facilitate LGBTQ homeless youth feeling safe, respected, and affirmed.

The 3/40 BLUEPRINT project will respond to these needs by developing a blueprint to reduce the 40% of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ. This blueprint will build the capacity of Transitional Living Programs to serve LGBTQ homeless youth by strengthening their efforts to better understand and address the needs of this population. Specifically, the proposed project will conduct:

  • a systematic review of existing literature;
  • a comprehensive needs assessment; and
  • a systematic identification and analysis of screening and assessment tools, existing and emerging practices, and trainings available for RHY providers.

The project will be guided by the Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Intervention Model and an Implementation Science framework to identify the core intervention components and core implementation drivers that are necessary to implement and sustain evidence-informed practices with LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness. The project will also have a particular emphasis on identifying the unique needs of LGBTQ homeless youth of color and the promising strategies that respond to those needs.

This project is a collaboration between the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, the University of Illinois at Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. A Technical Expert Group, consisting of leading experts in the RHY and LGBTQ fields, will provide ongoing consultation and input on all tasks. All efforts will also be coordinated with the Runaway and Homeless Youth Networks of Support, including the Runaway and Homeless Youth Training and Technical Assistance Center, the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, and the National Runaway Safeline.

Blog Post Author: Alan Dettlaff, PhD, Dean of the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work

Dr. Rashida Crutchfield Leads Project to Understand Housing and Food Insecurity Among California State University Students

Some research proposals develop over the course of many months, even years, and involve numerous iterations and reviews before being funded. Others are completed in less than 36 hours after receiving an email from your school’s Provost. The latter example is how Rashida Crutchfield, Assistant Professor of Social Work at California State University – Long Beach (CSULB), became the PI for a new study looking at the prevalence and needs of displaced students across CSU’s 23 campuses. The project was inspired by a local news story featuring a CSULB undergraduate student who has dealt with homelessness and other problems throughout his life and education – just one example of the many college students who face housing instability and food insecurity across the country.

The project, titled Best Practices Serving Displaced and Food-Insecure Students in the CSU, involves interviews and focus groups with school staff and administrators, and a student survey. In addition to Dr. Crutchfield, the work is supported by graduate student assistants from the School of Social Work. The final product will be a report that describes current formal and informal services and supports offered to students experiencing food and housing instability, and provides data-driven recommendations for best practices for CSU campuses.

This project is an excellent example of how schools of social work can serve as an important resource and tool in the effort to understand and address homelessness in the community. Not only will this project benefit CSU’s understanding of its response to food insecurity and housing instability among its students, it will add to our understanding of the prevalence and needs of this population. Further, it has the potential to serve as a model for other schools to conduct similar inquiries.

For more information contact Rashida Crutchfield (

Blog Post Author: Amanda Aykanian, Research and Project Lead at the National Center
Special thanks to Rashida Crutchfield for contributing to the content of this blog post.

The National Center Partners with the NY Coalition for Homeless Youth

On November 18th the NY Coalition for Homeless Youth held their annual conference on the UAlbany campus. The Coalition is a statewide advocacy organization that develops and implements programs and services for youth and their families, advocates for resources, and disseminates expertise and knowledge related to homeless and runaway youth (RHY). In partnership with the National Center, the Coalition hosted agencies from across New York State, as well as representatives from the Office of Mental Health (OMH), the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The conference provided a forum for presentations and discussions on a variety of topics, including:

  • program planning and evaluation;
  • funding and sustainability;
  • anti-human trafficking efforts;
  • LGBTQ and gender identity services implications;
  • social media; and
  • statewide policy challenges and advocacy.

Additionally, Heather Larkin (Co-director of the National Center) presented on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and developing ACE-informed programs. And, Amanda Aykanian (Doctoral Assistant at the National Center) facilitated a roundtable discussion on identifying funding sources and understanding opportunities available under Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.

Policy advocacy was a common talking point at the conference. A major component of the Coalition’s current efforts is advocating for an additional $2.4M for RHY services in New York State. This money would be a partial restoration of the state’s RHY budget, which has been cut significantly over the past several years. The cost of an emergency or transitional living youth shelter bed ranges from $20,000 to $35,000, depending on the location, and this money would be used to re-open beds in both urban and rural locations. This is a big task, but the presence of OMH, OCFS, and HUD at the conference is encouraging.

The National Center hopes to continue supporting the work of the Coalition, and looks forward to future collaborations. An upcoming blog post will highlight the Coalition’s work and priorities. In the meantime, check out their website and like them on Facebook. Below are some pictures from the conference.

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Blog Post Author: Amanda Aykanian, Research and Project Lead at the National Center