Youth Development in Youth Homelessness

December 21, 2021

During the holidays, homeless charities experience an increase in donations, and while charitable generosity in any capacity is valuable, homelessness is a pervasive issue that cannot be resolved with donations alone. Additionally, research is needed to find long-term solutions to promote meaningful societal change.

Research suggests that 40% of the U.S. homeless population is under 18 years of age (Rawhide Youth Services, 2019). Additionally, over a 12-month period, a study found 1-in-30 youth between the age of 13-17 experienced a form of homelessness; this figure was 1-in-10 for 18–25-year-olds (Morton et al., 2018). Many young people experiencing homelessness fall under the category of hidden homeless, that is, people who are not street homeless (what most of us think when we hear homelessness) but are experiencing insecure living conditions (i.e., sofa surfing) or are housed in sheltered accommodation (i.e., youth housing services).

The Issues Are Apparent, But What Are the Solutions?

At present, there are no definitive guidelines for best practice when working with young people experiencing homelessness. However, evidence from peer-reviewed studies suggests that programs that are psychologically informed, strengths-based, and provide opportunities for life skills development can promote resilience, well-being, reduction in substance use, and social inclusion benefits (Bani-Fatemi et al., 2020; Cronley et al., 2017; Cooley et al., 2020; Krabbenborg et al., 2017a, 2017b; Parry et al., 2020; Quinton et al., 2021).

Findings from the existing evidence base suggest strong similarities between program features and outcomes reported in youth homelessness with those commonly seen in the field of Positive Youth Development (PYD). For example, Lerner and colleagues’ (2011) conceptual model of PYD includes personal growth (i.e., reflected through the five Cs) and reductions in risk behavior (see Figure 1).

Moreover, interventions for young people experiencing homelessness also capture social inclusion outcomes, such as successful integration into employment, education, or training programs (Homeless Link, 2018). Facilitating social inclusion changes in youth reflect positive changes in contribution, which is sometimes referred to as the sixth C of PYD.

Figure 1: Conceptual model of PYD from Lerner et al., 2011

This blog post outlines two interventions targeting young people experiencing homelessness that demonstrate similarities with core principles of PYD. These interventions are My Strengths Training for Life™ (MST4Life™) and The Houvast Intervention.


MST4Life™ is a program that I (Dr. Ben Parry) worked on and studied while completing my PhD at the University of Birmingham, UK. The program was designed in collaboration with a housing organization that supports young people at risk of or experiencing homelessness between 16-24 years of age.

The purpose of MST4Life™ was to engage young people who were not engaged in education, employment, and training through a program grounded in strengths-based principles of sport psychology and promoted transferable skills applicable for personal growth and social engagement (

Below is a figure reflecting MST4Life™’s delivery model and underpinning theories and approaches. You can read more about MST4Life™ on their website ( and in peer-reviewed publications listed at the end of this post (e.g., Parry et al., 2020).

Figure 2: Delivery model and underpinning approaches included in MST4Life™

A PYD lense was adopted for MST4Life™ when evaluating the program’s mechanisms and impact, with findings suggesting participants experienced growth in five Cs of PYD and a range of transferable life skills. Subsequently, PYD became a core theory when training housing organization staff to deliver and evaluate strengths-based programs through my research and ongoing program evaluations.

The Houvast Intervention

The Houvast intervention is a strengths-based approach to service delivery in Dutch housing services supporting young adults (17-26 years; Krabbenborg et al., 2017a, 2017b). Research suggests that homeless service users receiving care according to Houvast guidelines experienced positive changes in outcomes, such as quality of life, family relations, resilience, competence, autonomy, depression, financial situation, and health (Krabbenborg et al.,2017a). The Houvast intervention has also been found to promote basic psychological needs (i.e., autonomy, relatedness, competence) (Krabbenborg et al., 2017b).

The Houvast intervention’s strengths-based philosophy of the program aligns with the core tenets of PYD. For instance, when outlining the Houvast approach, Krabbenborg and colleagues (2013) emphasize using strengths-based assessment tools and recognizing service users’ personal qualities. Houvast’s approach to service provision resonates with Damon’s (2004) view that PYD aims to, “manifest potentialities rather than the supposed incapacities of young people – including young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and those with the most troubled histories” (p. 17).

The Houvast intervention is an example of how incorporating strengths-based practices into service provision can make youth housing services more than just a ‘roof over their heads’. By taking a psychologically informed approach, youth housing services can be a setting that nurtures young people’s well-being, support their growth, and help them make meaningful and sustainable changes in their transition out of homelessness. Indeed, a psychologically-informed approach was adopted in the housing service that implemented MST4Life™ (Cumming et al., 2017).

What Can We Take From the Interventions Discussed?

  • Compared to youth housing services in the U.S. – for young people experiencing homelessness in the U.S., research suggests that the majority of interventions take place within housing services, akin to those included in Houvast and MST4Life™ (Morton et al., 2020). This suggests adopting a systems approach, that is, implementing change at an individual, program, and organizational level could be a viable method to incorporating PYD in youth housing services.
  • Older adolescence and early adulthood – PYD may look different for older groups experiencing homelessness; for example, adult-youth relationships may benefit from a trauma-informed approach. Additionally, there may be a need to adapt life skills curricula to focus on employment and independent living.
  • Applied practice – MST4Life™ researchers have used findings from the program to develop free guides for developing, implementing, and evaluating strengths-based approaches in collaboration with youth housing services (


There is a need for researchers and practitioners in youth development to mobilize their skills and expertise towards addressing youth homelessness. Specifically, PYD can be an organizing framework to inform evidence-based practices and programs that nurture developmental growth by recognizing skills and strengths.

Finally, if this blog has sparked your curiosity to study youth development in higher education, Clemson University offers an online Master of Science degree in Youth Development Leadership (36 credit hours, 12 courses, 2 years) as well as a Graduate Certificate in Youth Development Leadership (15 credit hours, 5 courses). These programs are uniquely designed for professionals working in youth development settings. For more information, visit or email


Bani-Fatemi, A., Malta, M., Noble, A., Wang, W., Rajakulendran, T., Kahan, D., & Stergiopoulos, V.  (2020). Supporting Female Survivors of Gender-Based Violence Experiencing Homelessness: Outcomes of a Health Promotion Psychoeducation Group Intervention. Frontiers in Psychiatry11.

Cooley, S. J., Quinton, M. L., Holland, M. J. G., Parry, B. J., & Cumming, J. (2019). The Experiences of Homeless Youth When Using Strengths Profiling to Identify Their Character Strengths. Frontiers in Psychology. Advanced online publication:

Cronley, C., & Evans, R. (2017). Studies of resilience among youth experiencing homelessness: A systematic review. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 27(4), 291–310.

Cumming, J., Skeate, A., Giles, A. (2017). Case Study 130: St Basils Psychologically Informed Environments – meeting the emotional and psychological needs of young homeless people. Housing Learning and Improvement Network.

Damon, W. (2004). What Is Positive Youth Development? Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591(January), 13–24.

Homeless Link Research Team (2018). Young & Homeless 2018.

Krabbenborg, M. A., Boersma, S. N., Beijersbergen, M. D., Goscha, R. J., & Wolf, J. R. (2015). Fidelity of a strengths-based intervention used by dutch shelters for homeless young adults. Psychiatric services (Washington, D.C.), 66(5), 470–476.

Krabbenborg, M. A. M., Boersma, S. N., van der Veld, W. M., Vollebergh, W. A. M., & Wolf, J. R. L. M. (2017a). Self-determination in relation to quality of life in homeless young adults: Direct and indirect effects through psychological distress and social support. Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(2), 130–140.

Krabbenborg, M. A. M., Boersma, S. N., van der Veld, W. M., van Hulst, B., Vollebergh, W. A. M., & Wolf, J. R. L. M. (2017). A cluster randomized controlled trial testing the effectiveness of Houvast: A Strengths-based intervention for homeless young adults. Research on Social Work Practice, 27(6), 639–652.

Krabbenborg, M. A. M., Boersma, S. N., & Wolf, J. R. L. M. (2013). A strengths based method for homeless youth: Effectiveness and fidelity of Houvast. BMC Public Health, 13, 359–369. https://doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-359

Lerner, R. M., Lerner, J. V., Lewin-Bizan, S., Bowers, E. P., Boyd, M. J., Mueller, M. K., … Napolitano, C. M. (2011). Positive Youth Development: Processes, Programs, and Problematics. Journal of Youth Development, 6(3), 38–62.

Morton, M. H., Dworsky, A., Matjasko, J. L., Curry, S. R., Schlueter, D., Chávez, R., & Farrell, A. F. (2018). Prevalence and Correlates of Youth Homelessness in the United States. Journal of Adolescent Health, 62(1), 14–21.

Morton, M. H., Kugley, K., Epstein, R., & Farrell, A. (2020) Interventions for youth homelessness: A systematic review of effectiveness studies. Children and Youth Services Review, (116),

Parry, B. J., Thompson. J. L., Holland, M. J. G., Quinton, M. L. & Cumming, J. (2020). Improving Outcomes in Young People Experiencing Homelessness with My Strengths Training for Life™ (MST4Life™): A Qualitative Realist Evaluation. Children and Youth Services Review. 121, 105793

Rawhide Youth Services (2019). Homeless Youth: America’s Hidden Population.