Homeless Youth and their Natural Mentors

Homeless Youth and their Natural Mentors - The Chronicles of Evidence-Based MentoringDang, M.T., & Miller, E. (2016). Characteristics of natural mentoring relationships from the perspective of homeless youth. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1111/jcap.12038

Introduction: Relative to their peers, homeless youth face greater challenges including higher rates of mental illness, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, and victimization.  Given the negative outcomes associated with being homeless, there is increased need to identify protective factors, including social capital that can foster positive development despite the challenging circumstances homeless youth encounter. This study explores the role and nature of natural mentoring relationships within the experiences of homeless youth.

Method: This study included 23 homeless youth who used drop-in services at a community center for runaway and homeless youth in northern California. The majority of youth in the study were female and between the ages of 14 and 21. Using qualitative methods, researchers conducted semi-structured interviews in which youth were asked about the characteristics and function of relationships with both kin and non-kin natural mentors.

Results: Similar to youth, the majority of natural mentors were female, with an even distribution of kin (e.g., grandparents, aunts/uncles, foster parent) and non-kin (e.g., teachers, friends’ parents, case managers/counselors) relationships. Over half of the youth reported knowing their mentor for more than four years. In addition three main themes reflecting youth’s experiences emerged:

  • Parental absence: most youth described histories of parental neglect or absence due to parental mental illness and substance use, incarceration, abandonment or death, as well as unstable housing or protective services involvement
  • Mentors as surrogate parents: Youth perceived their mentors as “parental figures”
    • Mentors conveyed interest in the youth, and actively sought them out
    • Distinct from other relationships, youth reported that mentors were nonjudgmental and attentive, which allowed youth to openly share vulnerabilities.
  • Social support from mentors: Mentors provided several forms of support to youth in a consistent and unconditional manner including:
    •  Instrumental (tangible – e.g., meals, shelter, rides, transportation passes)
    • Informational (advice and guidance)
    • Emotional and appraisal (e.g., encouragement, praise)

Conclusions: The findings from this qualitative study highlight the significance of positive natural mentoring relationships within the experiences of homeless youth. Due to difficult backgrounds with parental figures, and the transitory nature of life on the street, homeless youth may not have too many opportunities to establish connections within positive adults. Natural mentors provide youth with social capital, particularly at key developmental transitions, which in turn can foster youth’s connectedness to their communities, positive self-concept and resilience. When asked about her mentor, one youth noted,

“She takes time out of her day to call me, just to see, ‘I’m just trying to make sure you’re o.k., seeing how your day’s going’, and just little stuff like that makes me feel like she’s going to be here for me for, forever” (p.4).

The findings from this study have implications for programs invested in the well-being of homeless youth. Practitioners should include natural mentors within youths’ networks as an integral component of interventions efforts. For example, programs can facilitate youths’ access to mentors by creating spaces in which youth can encounter positive adults (e.g., volunteers on hand at centers), or equip youth with skills necessary for them to be able to identify potential mentors within their existing networks.  Similarly, researchers should explore additional factors that facilitate youth’s access to natural mentors.

Given the long-term risks of enduring homelessness, an increasing understanding of protective factors such as natural mentors will contribute to the well-being of homeless youth and provide them with an opportunity for positive adjustment.

summarized by Stella Kanchewa, doctoral student in clinical psychology at UMass Boston.