Covid-19 update: How to address expected surge in youth homelessness? Research uncovers overlooked resource

Economic hardship and family conflict caused by Covid-19 is driving many more young people into homelessness. Prior to the pandemic, an astonishing one in 10 young adults would face homelessness over the course of a year. That number is destined to swell, further taxing a youth homelessness response that, pre-pandemic, was only able to shelter a fraction of the young people in need. Yet new research identifies a promising key source of help that has been overlooked: trusted adults, such as relatives and neighbors, who play supporting roles in these young people’s lives and sometimes host them.

The study looks closely at “couch-hopping,” in which young people who are unable, for whatever reason, to live at home work their networks to stay with people they know. The practice is generally understood to be risky, but the study finds the connections forged between youth and their adult host can be very positive. It appears online in the April edition of the Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal.

“We believe we’re the first to interview the trusted adults who let couch-hopping youth stay with them,” said lead author Susanna Curry, assistant professor of social work at California State University, Sacramento. “Couch-hopping is often painted with a broad brush as an ‘unstable and risky practice,’ which is certainly sometimes the case. But we hypothesized that a subset of these arrangements—those that were intergenerational—could show promise and have staying power.

“Through in-depth interviews with both adult hosts and youth we found, almost across the board, that these arrangements were deeply meaningful for both parties. Some informal hosts even spoke about the youth as a ‘bonus’ child, and the youth most often described the host in familial terms as, say, ‘the parent I never had.’”

The peer-reviewed paper, “Beyond a Bed: Supportive Connections Forged Between Youth Who Are Couch Hopping and Adult Hosts” is based on in-depth interviews with nine youth aged 17-23 facing homelessness and 10 adult hosts who participated in an informal hosting arrangement for at least three weeks. The youth and hosts were at least 10 years apart in age and were not in a sexual or romantic relationship.

“This research has immediate practical applications,” said co-author Jacqueline White, founder and executive director of CloseKnit, a youth homelessness advocacy organization.

In fact, the research is already being applied in Minnesota. HOPE 4 Youth Drop-In Center in suburban Minneapolis launched the pilot HOPE Homes program last year in conjunction with CloseKnit. Their HOPE Homes specialist helps stabilize informal hosting arrangements by helping youth and their hosts create agreements around shared expectations. The program also provides each arrangement with a modest monthly financial stipend.

“The stories of connection and support between the youth and hosts are truly heart-warming,” White said. “And the youth are moving forward with their lives, getting jobs, GEDs, mental health services—and even making the honor roll.

“While Covid-19 complicates nearly everything, this research, as well as our on-the-ground experience, makes clear that investing in these under-recognized arrangements needs to be a priority. Of course, youth facing homelessness need a roof over their head, but they also need people who care about them who can cheer them on to success.”

For further information, contact:

Jacqueline White, founder and executive director, CloseKnit

Susanna R. Curry, PhD, assistant professor, Division of Social Work, California State University, Sacramento

Article link:

The research was funded by the Pohlad Family Foundation and two Bush Community Innovation Grants, administered by Headwaters Foundation for Justice.

The Pohlad Family Foundation has also underwritten the two-year HOPE Homes pilot at HOPE 4 Youth in Anoka, Minn.

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