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Risk Detection and Self-Protection Among Homeless Youth

Risk Detection and Self-Protection Among Homeless Youth

Risk Detection and Self-Protection Among Homeless Youth

Adolescence is considered a distinct developmental period. Discuss one clinical issue that may be faced by an adolescent (bullying, eating disorders, suicidal ideations, depression, substance abuse, etc.). Explore options and recommend a treatment professional and a setting to address the adolescent’s issue. State why that professional and that setting are the best options. Your journal entry may be informally written in first person and should consist of approximately 600 words.

Resources Below


Required Text

Martin, M.E. (2014). Introduction to human services: Through the eyes of practice settings (3rd.  ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education. ISBN: 9780205848058


Bender, K., Thompson, S., Ferguson, K., Yoder, J., & DePrince, A. (2015). Risk Detection and Self-Protection Among Homeless Youth. Journal of Research on Adolescence (Wiley-Blackwell)25(2), 352. Retrieved from

 Risk Detection and Self-Protection Among Homeless Youth. 


Utilizing qualitative interviews with a large sample of 145 homeless youth seeking services at homeless youth service agencies from across three U.S. cities (Los Angeles, Denver, and Austin), this study sought to explore youths’ perspectives on ways in which they detect risk and protect themselves on the streets. Results indicated that youth use a combination of internal cues (affective responses) and external cues (reading people) to detect danger, although many times danger was described as undetectable. Certain contexts, includes those that were unfamiliar, difficult to escape, or involved drugs were described as most dangerous. In response to these dangers, youth employed self‐protection strategies such as carrying weapons, banding together with trusted others, isolating, or seeking programing to leave the streets.

Trauma experiences are pervasive among homeless youth (Tyler & Cauce, [ 41] ). The majority of homeless youth report histories of familial abuse (Baron, [ 4] ; Ferguson, [ 16] ; Sullivan & Knutson, [ 38] ), and many describe family violence as a factor in their decisions to leave home (Tyler & Cauce, [ 41] ). However, leaving for the streets often exposes youth to violent crime and victimization (Coates & McKenzie‐Mohr, [ 11] ), with 45% of homeless youth reporting having been beaten up, 35% assaulted with a weapon, and 21% sexually assaulted while on the streets (Tyler, Hoyt, Whitbeck, & Cauce, [ 42] ).

The continuous exposure to trauma‐inducing experiences has serious consequences for youths’ mental health (Stewart et al., [ 37] ). Compared to the general population, homeless youth experience higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Bender, Ferguson, Thompson, Komlo, & Pollio, [ 6] ; Foy, Eriksson, & Trice, [ 20] ; Merscham, Van Leeuwen, & McGuire, [ 28] ; Whitbeck, Hoyt, Johnson, & Chen, [48] ). Rates of PTSD are particularly high among youth who have experienced both early abuse prior to leaving home and later victimization once homeless (Whitbeck et al., [ 48] ). Chronic and repeated victimization and associated symptoms of PTSD such as avoidance, numbing, and hyperarousal (American Psychiatric Association, [ 1] ; Stewart et al., [ 37] ) may inhibit youth from engaging with and trusting formal and informal support systems (Auerswald & Eyre, [ 2] ). Without the tangible and emotional supports provided by these pro social interactions, youth may fall behind in acquiring social and emotional skills (McManus & Thompson, [ 27] ) necessary for transitioning off the streets.

The current study investigated youths’ perceptions of dangerous situations, how they detect risk, and how they protect themselves from dangers inherent on the streets. Because homeless youth face pervasive danger in their day‐to‐day lives, understanding their ability to detect and respond to potentially risky situations is critical to developing services to prevent further exposure to harm and deleterious mental health symptoms associated with on going victimization.

Background Literature

Research has yet to identify strategies homeless youth use to detect risky and dangerous situations. Rather, the homeless youth literature focuses on identifying situational and behavioral risk factors for victimization as well as delineating youths’ methods of self‐preservation and self‐protection. This previous work indicates that homeless youth are at increased risk for victimization when they are transient (Ferguson, Bender, Thompson, Xie, & Pollio, [ 18] ), abuse substances (Bender et al., [ 6] ), commit criminal acts (Tyler & Johnson, [ 44] ), associate with delinquent peers, remain on the streets for longer periods of time (Yoder, Whitbeck, & Hoyt, [ 51] ), and engage in survival behaviors to earn money or obtain resources on the streets (Tyler et al., [ 42] ; Tyler, Hoyt, Whitbeck, & Cauce, [ 43] ; Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Bao, [ 47] ; Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Yoder, [ 49] ). Furthermore, those youth who lack adequate resources, such as employment and housing, often find themselves excluded from traditional social networks, which intensifies their risk for trauma and victimization (Gaetz, [ 22] ).

Research on self‐protection suggests that homeless youth develop “street smarts” as a way to navigate around potential dangers (Bender, Thompson, McManus, Lantry, & Flynn, [ 7] ). Homeless youths’ street smarts evolve as they gain more exposure to street life. Youth become more experienced with the street culture, learn who may be trustworthy, and which places are safe (Bender et al., [ 7] ). To avoid the various dangers on the streets, homeless youth typically rely on basic fight or flight mechanisms for self‐preservation and protection (Mounier & Andujo, [ 30] ).

Although little is known about risk detection among homeless youth or adults, the ability to detect cues that indicate potential danger has garnered significant research attention as a risk factor for victimization, particularly in the sexual assault literature (see Chu, DePrince, & Mauss, under review; Marx & Soler‐Baillo, [ 26] ). Indeed, safely navigating potentially dangerous situations likely involves many steps, from initially detecting potential danger cues to labeling cues as danger risks, and ultimately generating effective responses (Freyd, [ 21] ). Successful detection and labeling of risk cues likely involve cognitive as well as emotional or affective processes, as illustrated by individuals’ descriptions of sensing danger through intuitive or instinctual reactions based on previous experience with others or their surroundings (Slovic & Peters, [ 36] ).

Research on cognitive processes affecting risk detection emphasizes the important role previous trauma can play in inhibiting risk‐detection abilities (Cromer, Stevens, DePrince, & Pears, [ 12] ). Experiencing childhood maltreatment increases individuals’ risks of subsequent victimization (Cloitre, [ 10] ; DePrince, [ 13] ; Wyatt, Guthrie, & Notgrass, [ 50] ); this link between familial abuse and subsequent street victimization is supported in the homeless youth literature as well (Thrane, Hoyt, Whitbeck, & Yoder, [ 39] ). Some have suggested that a youth who forms attachment to, and becomes dependent upon, a caregiver perpetrator is less likely to perceive the relationship as abusive, and this misperception could generalize to missing risk cues in other interpersonal interactions (Freyd, [21] ). A range of cognitive factors may explain this process. Dissociation—a disconnection in functions of memory and perception often resulting from previous trauma—may be responsible for individuals missing risk cues, underestimating threats, having difficulty processing abuse‐related information, and making errors in social reasoning (DePrince, [ 13] ; DePrince & Freyd, [ 15] ; Sandberg, Lynn, & Matorin, [ 35] ). For example, foster care children with high levels of dissociation have difficulty with tasks requiring inhibition and auditory attention, and thus may be less likely to selectively attend to danger cues and apply self‐protection strategies (Cromer et al., [ 12] ).

Other work has focused on the importance of emotional cues in risk identification. Although in low‐risk situations individuals rely on logic and organized thoughts to inform their decisions, when in danger intuition or instinct are frequently responsible for determinations of risk and drive individuals’ ensuing reactions (Slovic & Peters, [ 36] ). The emotion of fear, for example, often occurs in situations where the individual has little control and is uncertain of his or her surroundings; this fear response elicits perceptions of high risk (Lerner, Gonzalez, Small, & Fischhoff, 2003). Subtler feelings or affective responses, often experienced in calmer states before crisis situations arise, can be useful to guide risk detection and increase a sense of safety (Slovic & Peters, [ 36] ). Thus, although careful logical analysis of one’s situation may be helpful in avoiding risk, affective reactions, intuition, or “gut feelings” often come more quickly and more easily to individuals and thus may be more efficient means of identifying danger (Slovic & Peters, [ 36] ).

Particularly among youth with histories of victimization, errors of either omission or commission in response to danger cues can affect overall risk‐detection ability (e.g., DePrince, [ 13] ). For example, individuals with victimization histories demonstrate greater difficulty correctly identifying violations of social and safety rules compared to nonvictimized individuals (DePrince, [ 13] ). In addition, even in the face of accurate risk detection, individuals’ behavioral responses aimed at self‐protection may be unhelpful (Sandberg et al., [ 35] ).

Recognizing the elevated rates and serious consequences of victimization among street‐involved youth, it is critical to better understand strategies they use to detect risks for danger in their environments. Although the literature notes that the majority of homeless youth fear victimization (Kipke, Montgomery, Simon, & Unger, [ 23] ), no known studies have examined how these youth recognize dangerous situations and employ self‐protection strategies. Utilizing qualitative interviews with a large sample of 145 homeless youth across three U.S. cities (Los Angeles, Denver, and Austin), this study sought to explore youths’ perspectives on ways in which they detect risk and protect themselves on the streets. Our exploration views risk and protection as interrelated—a process by which youth must first identify dangerous contexts and interactions and then determine methods of self‐protection when faced with these risks. As such, this study aimed to address the following three research questions: ( 1) How do homeless youth detect risky and dangerous situations? ( 2) What contexts, environments, individuals do they perceive as dangerous? and ( 3) What behavioral strategies do they employ to protect themselves against victimization? Better understanding youths’ perspectives may inform the development of interventions aimed at preventing victimization among this vulnerable population. Future efforts to help homeless individuals avoid victimization during the important developmental stage of late adolescence and early adulthood are also likely to aid them in seeking safety and stability.


Sample and Recruitment

Through purposive sampling, 145 street youth were recruited through host agencies serving homeless youth in Los Angeles (n = 50), Denver (n = 50), and Austin (n = 45). The sample averaged 20 years of age (SD = 1.4), was mostly male (n = 95; 65.5%), and was ethnically diverse (32.4% White, 31% Black, 22.8% Latino, and 13.8% other). The majority of the sample currently lived on the streets (n = 89; 61.4%) as opposed to other forms of short‐term shelter (n = 56; 38.6%). On average, youth in the sample had been homeless 30.79 months (SD = 28.74) or 2.6 years. The sample reported high rates of victimization on the streets, with the majority (n = 110, 75.9%) reporting experiences of indirect victimization such as witnessing assaults or being threatened with serious bodily injury or death; an even larger proportion (n = 123; 84.8%) reported experiences of direct victimization such as physical assault, sexual assault, and robbery. Table [NaN] displays detailed sample characteristics.

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