By Emma Thompson Assoc MAPS
Psychologist, Service to Youth Council, South Australia

Adolescents experiencing homelessness are one of the least visible, yet most at-risk groups in society. A history of offending can directly influence the pathway of an adolescent into homelessness, laying the foundation for a life of closed doors and disadvantage (Thompson & O'Connell, 2008).

Adolescents who were homeless at the time of offending will find it difficult to source accommodation, let alone maintain it, upon their release from detention. They will face a number of barriers including the stigma of an offending history, institutionalisation and a deficit in their independent living skills, including practical life skills and social competence.

This article explores a Peer Influence Model developed as a result of research and clinical practice within a South Australian non-government youth agency, Service to Youth Council (SYC). SYC specialises in supporting adolescents who experience homelessness and have a history of offending. The efficacy of an independent living skills group program as a response to the Peer Influence Model is explored. Key focus areas for effective group rehabilitation are identified.

Homelessness in adolescent offenders

The current data on homelessness in Australia is cause for concern given 43 per cent of people who are homeless are aged below 25 years (Chamberlain & McKenzie, 2009). In South Australia this figure is worse, with 55 per cent of the homeless population aged below 25 years (Chamberlain & McKenzie, 2009). Trace-A-Place, the central assessment, referral and case management service for homeless adolescents in South Australia, took 45,734 accommodation related calls in 2008 and had personal contact with 1,895 homeless adolescents. Over 750 adolescents received ongoing case management. Research indicates that those who become homeless before the age of 18 years are at greater risk than others of being homeless for long periods and find it more difficult to transition out of homelessness (Johnson, Gronda & Coutts, 2008).

The relationship between adolescent homelessness and criminal behaviour is somewhat complicated. There is a paucity of research as to the nature of this relationship, with an indication that for some adolescents criminal behaviour can indirectly result in homelessness. For other adolescents experiencing homelessness, criminal behaviour is a means to survival on the streets. Substance abuse is common in homeless adolescents (Johnson et al., 2008) and this too is an antecedent for criminal behaviour. Regardless of the nature of the relationship between adolescent homelessness and offending, it is a reality that adolescent offenders exiting custody find it difficult to source, secure and maintain accommodation. They often become homeless shortly after release and then engage in survival offending, perpetuating a vicious cycle of disadvantage.

The influence of peers

The Peer Influence Model was developed as a result of clinical work and research completed with 150 adolescent offenders aged 15 to 21 years with unstable accommodation.1 After family, peers have the most influence on adolescent behaviour. For those who are homeless and have no contact with family, peers replace the family and become a strong support and powerful influence on behaviour (Thompson & O'Connell, 2008). Homeless adolescents are more likely to engage with their peers in the homeless subculture. This makes them more likely to remain homeless, develop substance use issues, mental health problems and engage in criminal behaviour (Johnson et al., 2008).

The Peer Influence Model describes aspects of the relationship between homelessness, criminal behaviour and peer influence (see Table 1). It is important to note this model is cyclical.

Table 1. The Peer Influence Model

Stage 1 

Release from youth detention and engagement with the homeless subculture; association with peers with unstable or no accommodation

Stage 2 

One member of the peer group secures tenancy in independent housing 

Stage 3 

This tenancy becomes unstable due to a lack of living skills and the peer group ‘moving in', leading to the escalation of antisocial or criminal behaviour 

Stage 4 

Tenancy breaks down, leading to eviction and possible incarceration due to criminal behaviour 

Stage 5 

The peer group disperses 

 

A lack of independent living skills

Deficits in independent living skills were identified as the second key factor in the relationship between homelessness and criminal behaviour in adolescent offenders (Thompson & O'Connell, 2008).

Research has indicated that an independent living skills group program targeting interpersonal skills and community integration can be an effective intervention in reducing recidivism in adolescent offenders (Lipsey & Wilson, 1998) and improving accommodation stability (Loeber & Farrington, 1998).

Research has also emphasised the importance of intervention prior to release from custody (Borzycki & Baldry, 2003). As reflected in the Peer Influence Model, accommodation breaks down due to a deficit in social competence skills including the inability to negotiate or resolve conflict, insufficient assertiveness skills and lack of problem solving skills. This is compounded by the additional challenges of reintegration into the community: institutionalisation, loss of personal belongings, lack of service knowledge and strengthening of criminal networks.

Directed by the research, SYC developed an independent living skills program (‘Ignition') for adolescent offenders aged 14 to 25 years. Ignition adopts a through-care approach, with participants commencing the program whilst in custody and continuing upon release in the community. SYC designed Ignition as an intensive, multimodal program to meet a variety of learning styles.

Key focus areas

SYC's Ignition program is comprised of 17 modules aimed at developing either a practical skill or a social competence. Social competence areas include goal setting, communication, conflict resolution, identity, relationships, problem solving and mental wellbeing. The mental wellbeing module consists of educational and self-reflective activities focusing on the areas of stress and anger. Factored into the design of all social competence modules is the need to address the antecedents of criminal behaviour and the strong influence of peers.

Future directions for research

SYC's Ignition program is currently being evaluated in partnership with the University of South Australia's School of Psychology. Evaluation results are not yet available, however preliminary data at the time of writing indicate that 100 per cent of Ignition participants who transitioned from custody into the community have not re-engaged in criminal behaviour and remain in stable accommodation.2

Whilst SYC has started to build a picture of the nature of homelessness in the adolescent offender population, further research needs to be undertaken. It is important to build a clearer picture of the complex relationship between homelessness and criminal behaviour in adolescents, particularly to best guide individual interventions.

The author can be contacted at elthompson@syc.net.au.


¹ SYC was the sole provider of a Juvenile Justice Job Placement Employment and Training service within Australia from 2004-2009.
² The Ignition pilot program commenced in February 2009 with final follow up data due for collection in late 2009.

References

Borzycki, M., & Baldry, E. (2003). Promoting Integration: The Provision of Prisoner Post-release Services. Trends and Issues in crime and criminal justice. No. 262. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Chamberlain, C., MacKenzie, D. (2009). Counting the homeless 2006: South Australia. Cat. no. HOU 206. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Johnson,G., Gronda, H., & Coutts, S. (2008). On the Outside: Pathways In and Out of Homelessness. North Melbourne, Vic: Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Lipsey, M., & Wilson, D. (1998). Effective intervention for serious juvenile offenders: A synthesis of research. In R. Loeber & D. P. Farrington (Eds.), Serious and violent juvenile offenders: Risk factors and successful interventions (pp.313-345). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Loeber, R., & Farrington, D.P. (1998). Never too early, never too late: Risk factors and successful interventions for serious and violent juvenile offenders. Studies on Crime and Crime Prevention, 7(1), 7-30.

Thompson, E., & O'Connell, E. (2008). A Recipe for Success: How independent living skills can prevent accommodation breakdown in young offenders exiting secure care. Parity, 21(4), 33-34.

InPsych October 2009