A new study, reportedly the first of its kind, from the UC Berkeley school of public health has found that the mortality rate for homeless youth in San Francisco is 10 times higher than their peers who have a place to live.
Dr. Colette Auerswald—a pediatrician, adolescent medicine specialist, and associate professor of public health at UC Berkeley—and her research team studied a cohort of 218 street-recruited homeless youth (ages 15 to 24) from 2004 to 2010. Two thirds were male and one third were female. Eleven members of the cohort—about five percent—died over the course of the study. Three of them committed suicide, one was the victim of homicide, and the others succumbed to substance abuse.
An estimated 1,378 homeless youth sleep on San Francisco’s streets on any given night.
“This is a phenomenon of our greater and greater acceptance of the poverty of children,” Auerswald said. “I was born in the 60s, grew up in the 70s. There were men, alcoholics, on the street in Washington DC. They were suffering. But there weren’t legions of young people on the street.” The Guardian reports:
Auerswald and her research team did not seek out young people for the study by connecting with them at drop-in centers or other programs; those homeless youths tend to be at lower risk.
Instead, they headed to Haight Street first, a popular San Francisco neighborhood for young homeless people to congregate. The researchers talked to youths there, asking about their lives and about other places where such homeless kids gather. Then they went to the new spot and asked the same questions.
The researchers were able to map where young homeless people in San Francisco actually congregate, like “the African American youth coming to Market Street selling marijuana and escaping violence in their own communities, the survival sex in this other neighborhood, the white kids who travel.”
“We were interested in meeting youth ‘where they’re at’ on the street, not in services,” Auerswald told the Guardian. “Setting foot in services is a big act of faith that a large amount of kids don’t do.”
Young homeless women are even more vulnerable than young homeless men: The mortality rate of the young men in the study was 9.4 percent greater than their peers, while that of young women in the study was 16.1 percent greater than theirs.
“Women are in a very vulnerable place socially on the streets,” Auerswald said. “And they’re often in exploitative relationships where they are dependent on people who are hurting them in order to survive.”