Homeless Youth and Experiences with Discrimination

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Pictured above are the researchers working on this critically important project. From left to right:

Dr. Amanda Sisselman-Borgia, Assistant Professor at Lehman College

Dr. Mia Budescu, Assistant Professor at Lehman College

Dr. Gina Torino, Associate Professor at SUNY Empire State College

Ni-Emah Bugg, Student Researcher at Lehman College

Every year, approximately 5000 homeless youth die due to violence, illness and suicide. Research consistently highlights the deleterious impact of discrimination and prejudice on mental health outcomes. For example, race-based trauma is linked to depression, anger, physical reactions, avoidance, hypervigilance/arousal, and low self-esteem. Preliminary research suggests that youth who experience discrimination and stigmatization based on their homelessness are at risk for low self-esteem, loneliness, and suicidal ideation.  Importantly, the impact of stigma and discrimination is especially harmful for individuals who were abused in their childhood, as is true for a disproportionate number of homeless youth.

In two small studies funded by Professor Sisselman-Borgia’s institutional start-up funds and support from Dean Latimer’s office, we examined associations between subtle discrimination (microaggressions based on homeless status and race) and health/mental health among homeless youth.  In the Fall of 2017, we received additional funding from the American Psychological Association to continue this work and to pilot the use of diary study methodology with smart phones and fit bit technology to understand more about these associations in real time.  Data collection for this new study is set to begin late Fall 2017 and continue into the Spring of 2018.

In one, survey data were collected from 53 homeless youth at drop-in centers in New York City.  LGBTQ youth and youth of color were over-represented in the sample, consistent with the general demographics of the homeless youth population. Mental and physical health were assessed with the validated Child Behavior Checklist, racial microaggressions were assessed using the REMS validated scale, and homelessness microaggressions were assessed by a scale developed and validated for this study. Higher levels of perceived or experienced microaggressions were correlated with higher levels of physical and mental health symptoms, including depression, social problems, and aggressive behavior. In the other study, to examine differences in experiences between homeless and non-homeless youth, survey data were collected from 47 homeless youth and 36 ethnically matched non-homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 24.  We assessed the degree to which they experienced both life-time and day-to-day discrimination, and what they attributed their experiences to (race, housing status, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). Homeless youth were more likely than their non-homeless counterparts to attribute discriminatory events (both for lifetime and day-to-day experiences) to their housing status and sexual orientation.  Homeless youth reported significantly more experiences with lifetime discrimination, whereas there were no significant differences on day-to-day experiences with discrimination.

Two manuscripts from the first study discussed above will be submitted this month (November 2018) for review to peer reviewed journals – one to Urban Social Work and the other to The Journal of Emerging Adulthood.  These findings have also been presented at two national conferences.  Manuscripts from the other completed study are forthcoming.


Learn more about Lehman College’s Department of Social Work here.

Learn more about Lehman College’s Department of Psychology here.

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