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Street youth is a term used to characterize young people who have run away or been expelled from their homes and/or spend all or much of their time in public locations. Most of these youth lack permanent residences, spend a great deal of time without shelter, and suffer from conditions of extreme deprivation. As a result, street youth are forced into risky lifestyles, spending much of their time in dangerous locations, where they often become involved in a range of violent activities, including assaults, robberies, and group fights. Their participation in violence is influenced by a host of factors: family histories, poverty, violent values, violent peers, and other street experiences, among them.
To begin to understand street youth violence, it is important to explore the family backgrounds from which these youth are often drawn. Research suggests that many street youth grow up in families that utilize ineffective child-rearing strategies. First, there is evidence that parents of street youth do not monitor their children effectively and fail to recognize and sanction deviant behavior when it occurs.
As a consequence, street youth may fail to develop self-control, leaving them more likely to be insensitive, physical, impulsive, short sighted, risk takers with low frustration tolerance. Evidence suggests that street youth with low self-control are more likely to engage in violent behaviors on the street.
Second, there is evidence that street youth are drawn from families in which there is a great deal of domestic violence. Further, many street youth have been repeatedly physically and/or sexually assaulted while living at home. These violent experiences not only influence street youth’s decisions to leave their homes for the streets, but also increase the likelihood of their being involved in violent offenses once on the street. These backgrounds provide models for aggressive interaction styles and serve to train street youth for violent behavior. Street youth may incorporate their parents’ aggressive behaviors, generalize it to other contexts, and adopt violence as a strategy for settling disputes or gaining compliance from others. These ideas about using violence to solve problems may also evolve into broader values that favor violence, leaving street youth more prone to violent behavior.
The experience of being homeless also increases the likelihood of violence. This relationship can be explained in a number of ways. First, homelessness places street youth in dangerous locations and risky situations in which violence is more likely to occur.
Being on the street increases the likelihood that street youth will meet and associate with people who are themselves violent offenders. This exposure to violent offenders increases the probabilities that street youth will become involved in violent altercations. Second, being homeless severs a street youth’s ties to the conventional society. This isolation from the larger society can weaken street youth’s moral constraints and lower the inhibitions that restrict the use of violence.
The poverty associated with homelessness can also contribute to violent behavior on the street. First, the lack of financial resources can lead to violence. The inability to escape the stressful circumstances of homelessness can increase an emotional arousal that is often expressed as anger and can lead to aggressive behavior. Second, there is evidence that perceptions of injustice and unfairness over economic circumstances can generate feelings of resentment and hostility that street youth may express in the form of violent crime. Third, economic factors can motivate instrumental offenses like robbery through which street youth attempt to obtain through violent means the resources they lack. Insufficient income can also alter street youth’s perceptions of legal sanctions for engaging in violent behavior. Street youth without resources are less likely to view the penalties for violent behavior as severe, which decreases the potential deterrent effect of legal sanctions.
Values Supportive Of Violence
There is also evidence that street youth acquire attitudes and values that are supportive of violent behavior, which in turn increases the likelihood of violent behavior occurring. Attitudes favoring violence can stem from a number of sources. The emotional arousal caused by the stress of living under negative economic circumstances can expand rules regulating aggression. Further, homelessness socially isolates street youth from the conventional society, leaving them more likely to interact with violent peer groups that communicate rules supportive of violence. Street youth can also learn when and where violence is appropriate by observing the violent behavior of their peers. Peers can also provide social rewards for engaging in violence, creating situations in which street youth engage in violence in an attempt to gain acceptance from their peers. Peer support for violence can also serve to reduce the fear of legal punishment and decrease street youth’s evaluations of the severity of legal sanctions for violent behavior.
Perceiving the chances of apprehension low, and the penalties slight, street youth are free from the threat that legal sanctions might pose for engaging in violent activities.
Street youth are also more likely to be supportive of violence when they have used it successfully in previous situations. Previous violent episodes contribute to the learning and acceptance of violent values because people are likely to attempt to rationalize or justify past behavior. The dangerous nature of the street also contributes to street youth’s attitudes favoring violence. In locations where violent behavior is common, rules may evolve from expectations that aggression is necessary for personal safety. The adoption of these rules can reduce risk because those who are aggressive may be more able to avoid victimization than those who are cautious when approaching potentially violent situations. Being victimized by violence on the street can also lead street youth to adopt rules supportive of violence. The victimization experience, much like that of observing violent peers, serves to educate the victim that violence is an effective method of conflict management. Victimization can also leave victims more likely to condone retaliation, legitimizing the use of violence in the future.
The violent values that street youth acquire influence the way that they proceed in a dispute and escalate a conflict to violence. As a result of their aggressive rules, street youth are much more sensitive to harm than are members of the general public. Further, once street youth perceive harm, their violent rules make it more likely they will demand some sort of reparation for the harm than would members of the general public, thus escalating the conflict. Street youth’s violent values also leave them much more willing than members of the general public to use force to settle the dispute if their demands for reparations are not met.
The rules supportive of violence adopted by street youth appear to call for violent responses under a number of different circumstances, including situations in which perceptions of self or codes of honor are violated. Street youth who are called derogatory or offensive names are more likely to react with violence. Further, street youth who perceive that they have not been shown the proper deference or respect by others also may respond with violence. Similarly, there appear to be rules of retributive justice calling for violent retaliation in response to past wrongs. Street youth who are the victims of assault are expected to avenge a defeat with violence. Those wronged in illegal business transactions (e.g., drug deals) are expected to engage in violence to settle scores. Street youth are also sensitive to those who provide information on their behavior to various authorities and target informants for violence.
Street youth also have rules regarding group participation and violence. Street youth peer groups develop rules around appropriate targets for victimization that include other street groups and those associated with them. Groups can also develop norms regarding guardianship and expectations surrounding the protection of one another, as well as the use of violence as a method of defending the honor of the group. In some cases, there may be expectations regarding group rivalries, including disputes over turf or territory.
Street youth groups may also provide a subculture of rules regarding violence and substance use. In certain situations, street youth may be expected to use drugs and/or alcohol and act aggressively, while in others street youth may be expected to use these substances and engage in collective relaxation. The use of drugs and/or alcohol can prepare street youth to engage in robberies and assaults. Drugs and alcohol also can create feelings of invulnerability and distort perceptions of risk, making violent offenses more likely.
A significant number of street youth, as many as half, become involved to some extent in street gangs. For those in gangs, violence is often associated with gang encounters or gang membership. Gang membership is also associated with increased contact with the criminal justice system and the use of more deviant subsistence strategies. However, those street youth not involved in gangs tend to limit their interaction with gangs and avoid gang territories, colors, and signs.
There is no consensus among researchers as to whether street youth groups are themselves gangs. Some researchers suggest that many of the important features emphasized by those doing research on gangs are not necessarily present in street youth groups. Street youth groups are not consistently territorial, are not necessarily male dominated, contain youths from a diversity of class backgrounds, and do not increase the levels of group-related crimes. Others have observed that street youth groups have the characteristics consistent with what gang researchers have defined as compressed gangs. Like compressed gangs, street youth groups tend to have a small number of members, are narrow in age range, and have low membership stability and loose group cohesion.
Street youth groups appear to be primarily formed for the sake of survival. Street youth tend to congregate in areas where there are other offenders, and in these groups street youth find safety. While the number of situations involving group violence is low for street youth groups, these situations provide opportunities for both personal and group recognition and symbolically function to define group boundaries by demonstrating who is part of the group and who is not.
Policy And Prevention
Street youth violence presents a number of challenges to service providers and policymakers. Researchers have argued that economic and social support programs are required to help prevent child maltreatment, ineffective parenting strategies, domestic violence, and youth leaving home for the streets in the first place. The vulnerability of street youth to violence on the street also points to the need for street-based outreach workers, drop-in centers, and safe houses to provide immediate protection and opportunities for crisis intervention. It has been suggested that these short-term interventions must be linked to more long-term comprehensive programs that focus on the range of factors that are linked to violence. Among these are programs that focus on the personal problems associated with the traumatic childhood backgrounds and the street experiences that lead youth to manage their problems through violence. These types of programs need to be connected to the provision of educational and employment opportunities as well as quality affordable long-term housing to assist youth in getting off the street; reducing their sense of anger, deprivation, and hostility; and buffering them from the street elements that lead to violence.
Street youth are an “at risk” population for a range of violent behaviors. Their violence stems from a host of family background and street factors. The home experiences of street youth, including ineffective parental supervision and being the victims of child abuse, create impulsive, short-tempered, risk-taking children who take to the street viewing violence as an acceptable method of conflict management. On the street, the anger and frustration associated with the stresses of poverty can lead to negative emotions being resolved through violence in a dangerous environment populated by other violent offenders. Being on the street cuts street youth off from the moral values of the conventional society and places them in a situation in which peers offer them protection, educate them in violence, and provide support for aggressive behavior while reducing the fear of legal sanctions. The violent values acquired at home and on the street provide guidelines as to when violent behavior is expected and influence how street youth react in conflict situations. The complex causal process requires a multifaceted approach to prevention and treatment to combat street youth homelessness and violence.
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