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Cityscape: Volume 20 Number 3 | “Nothing is for free...”: Youth Attitudes about Engaging Resources While Unstably Housed


Youth Homelessness

Volume 20, Number 3

Mark D. Shroder
Michelle P. Matuga

“Nothing is for free...”: Youth Logics of Engaging Resources While Unstably Housed

Gina M. Samuels
University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration

Christine Cerven
Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago

Susanna R. Curry
California State University-Sacramento, Division of Social Work

Shantá R. Robinson
University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration

Disclaimer: The substance and findings of the work are dedicated to the public. The authors are solely responsible for the accuracy of the opinions, statements, and interpretations contained in this publication, and these do not necessarily reflect the views of the government or any of Chapin Hall’s partners.

This article presents findings from a national study of 215 youth, ages 13 to 25, experiencing housing instability in five U.S. counties. Drawing on life-course interviews, a housing timeline tool, and background survey data, we explored the factors associated with their use and rejection of both formal and informal resources. Using inductive conceptual methods of analysis, we created a model of “youth logics of engagement,” illustrating three factors that shaped how youth interpreted the costs versus benefits of using available resources. The three interrelated factors were (1) identity protection, (2) accumulated experience, and (3) personal agency. We feature four vignettes as examples that highlight how these three factors drive logics—processes of evaluating the pros and cons—of engaging resources in ways that are both shared and individually unique across all 215 participants. Our findings support the need to expand our attention beyond youth’s physical risks, to include risks and costs that are emotional, psychological, and relational. Youth’s management of these often-hidden elements of risk sometimes increased their exposure to physical risk as a consequence of rejecting or avoiding resources that might compromise their emotional, psychological, or relational well-being.

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