Service utilization among homeless and runaway youth in Los Angeles, California: rates and reasons

C J De Rosa, S B Montgomery, M D Kipke, E Iverson, J L Ma, J B Unger
Journal of Adolescent Health 1999, 24 (3): 190-200

PURPOSE: To describe the service utilization patterns of homeless and runaway youth in a "service-rich" area (Los Angeles, California); identify demographic and other correlates of utilization; and contextualize the findings with qualitative data.

METHOD: During Phase 1 of this study, survey data were collected from an ethnically diverse sample of 296 youth aged 13-23 years, recruited from both service and natural "hang-out" sites using systematic sampling methods. During Phase 2, qualitative data were collected from 46 youth of varying ethnicities and lengths of time homeless.

RESULTS: Drop-in centers and shelters were the most commonly used services (reported by 78% and 40%, respectively). Other services were used less frequently [e.g., medical services (28%) and substance abuse treatment (10%) and mental health services (9%)]. Utilization rates differed by ethnicity, length of time in Los Angeles, and city of first homeless episode (Los Angeles vs. all others). Shelter use was strongly associated with use of all other services. Despite youths' generally positive reactions to services, barriers were described including restrictive rules, confidentiality and reporting problems, and negative interactions with staff members. Youth suggested improvements including more targeted services, more long-term services, revised age restrictions, and more and/or better job training and transitional services to get them off the streets.

CONCLUSIONS: Because shelters and drop-in centers act as gateways to other services and offer intervention potential for these hard-to-reach youth, it is vital that barriers to use of these services are eliminated.

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