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Exploring the Relationship Between Homelessness and Delinquency: A Snapshot of a Group of Homeless Youth in San Jose, California


This paper reports the findings of an exploratory study examining the relationship between homelessness and delinquency in adolescents. Researchers collected data from interviews of 42 homeless youth contacted through a drop-in center in San Jose, California. Participants responded to a structured interview as well as two vignettes describing situations in which crimes were committed. The most striking findings are that (1) reported rates of delinquency are higher than expected based on past research, and (2) despite the high rates of delinquency, answers to a “three wishes” question describe wishes and ideals that are largely consistent with mainstream societal values. This paper provides a survey of existing research on homeless youth and delinquency, a comparison of our findings to those of previous studies, and two detailed case studies that highlight the patterns we observed in the broader survey.

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This study was funded in part by Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, and the Children’s Health Fund.

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Correspondence to Seth Ammerman.



Youths’ reactions to different crimes were evaluated using their responses to two vignettes. Each vignette was read aloud to each subject to remove reading comprehension as a factor in the responses.

Vignette #1

Two young men, brothers, had gotten into serious trouble. Because of this, they were secretly leaving town in a hurry and needed money. Alexander, the older one, broke into a store and stole $500.00. Joe, the younger one, went to a retired old man who was known to help people in town. Joe told the man that he was very sick, and he needed $500.00 to pay for the operation. Really, he wasn’t sick at all, and he had no intention of paying the man back. Although the man didn’t know Joe very well, he loaned him the money. So Joe and Alex skipped town, each with $500.00 (Colby et al. 1983, p. 83).

Vignette #2

Susan is an 18-year-old woman who is jogging in a nearby park for her morning exercise. It is a routine she has had for the past three years since she began running on her high school track team. She is now in her first year of college and she hopes to become a software engineer. One morning while running she was attacked by a group of boys, beaten and raped. The following week an 18-year-old homeless woman named Karen is sleeping alone on a bench in the same park. Karen has been homeless since she was fifteen when she left home because of her abusive parents. She has been drug-free for 2 months and is on the waiting list for transitional housing. She was also badly beaten and raped by the group of boys.

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Schwartz, M., Sorensen, H.K., Ammerman, S. et al. Exploring the Relationship Between Homelessness and Delinquency: A Snapshot of a Group of Homeless Youth in San Jose, California. Child Adolesc Soc Work J 25, 255–269 (2008).

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  • Homeless adolescents
  • Delinquency
  • Incarceration
  • Wishes