In one of the first investigations of how homelessness, race and policing intersect among youth, Nebraska researchers have found that homeless youth of color face more frequent police contact and arrest – although all youth who live on the street are more likely to encounter police.
The findings suggest adequate housing for homeless youth could help break the pattern of homelessness and incarceration.
In an article published May 23 in Justice Quarterly, Jerreed Ivanich, graduate student researcher in sociology, and Tara Warner, assistant professor of sociology, show that among all homeless youth, racial minorities are nearly twice as likely than their white counterparts to report police contact.
However, the analysis also found white homeless youth who live unsheltered on the street or in abandoned buildings are as likely to experience police contact as their non-white peers. Previous interactions with police also raise the risk for white homeless youth to have further police harassment or be arrested.
“Race matters, but contexts of time and place seem to be shaping outcomes, too,” Ivanich, the paper’s lead author, said. “For white homeless youth, being directly on the street is what makes them more visible to police.”
Homeless youth face a patchwork of laws criminalizing aspects of homelessness and sometimes resort to deviant and criminal behavior to survive, Warner said.
“Research has shown that harassment is associated with future arrest, and having been arrested previously is associated with subsequent arrests,” Warner said. “Combining that with the criminalization of homelessness just starts a vicious cycle.
“How race and street visibility matter (in terms of police contact) demonstrates the need for things like adequate housing and resources specifically targeted at homeless youth.”
This is one of the first investigations examining the relationships of race, homelessness and policing among youth, Warner and Ivanich said.
“Racial minorities are disproportionately represented among homeless youth and youth who are arrested, but research on how race and homelessness combine to shape the risk of police contact among youth has been sparse,” Ivanich said. “By looking at these two together, our study contributes to how we understand the role of race in homeless youth’s contact with the criminal justice system.”
For this current research, Ivanich and Warner culled data from the Midwest Longitudinal Study of Homeless Adolescents led by Les Whitbeck, professor emeritus at Nebraska and Ivanich’s graduate adviser. That study was based on interviews with 428 homeless teens, ages 16-19, in urban areas of four states: Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. The youths had the option of being interviewed every three months from 2000 to 2003.
The Midwest Longitudinal Study of Homeless Adolescents was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health.