Stressors, Protective Factors, and Substance Use among Homeless Youth and Young Adults

Project Information

Principal Investigator: Kimberly Tyler
Co-Principal Investigator: Kristen Olson
Funding Agency: NIH
Award Date:
Theme: Social-Emotional & Behavioral Health
Project URL: N/A

For more information please contact Kimberly Tyler at


Every day, as many as 2.8 million runaway and homeless youth live on the streets of America. Of the many significant problems they face, perhaps the most detrimental to their long-term health and survival is substance abuse. Drug and alcohol prevalence among homeless youth and young adults is astounding; 83 percent have used alcohol, 75 percent have used marijuana and approximately 30 percent have used illicit drugs.

Substance use among homeless youth and young adults has been linked to child abuse, parental substance abuse, psychological distress and deviant peers. However, little is known about the role of protective mechanisms to offset or change risk for substance use and abuse for this vulnerable population. The long-term goal of the PI’s research program is to improve the lives of homeless youth and young adults by preventing substance abuse and guarding against future health risks.

In support of this goal, the specific aims of this study are to: 

  1. Empirically identify protective factors, including psychological and social resources, and their association with substance use among a sample of homeless youth and young adults. Empirically identify primary and secondary stressors to determine their association with substance use. 
  2. Determine whether protective factors mediate the relations between childhood disadvantage and substance use.
  3. Determine the utility of an innovative data collection method, short message service (SMS), to gather multiple daily data on substance use. 
We currently have a general understanding of several risk factors for substance use. However, there is a dearth of empirical studies that examine both primary and secondary stressors, and the role of protective mechanisms as a buffer between childhood disadvantage and substance use. Additionally, there are few studies that examine the covariance of resources and stressors over time. While identifying risk factors for substance use is important, it is equally critical to identify the reasons why some youth never initiate substance use or abstain from it. This allows for the creation of unique, modifiable social and psychological resources that serve as protective factors against substance use.

Data collection methods will include a face-to-face structured interview with 120 homeless youth and young adults, through two service agencies. This will be followed up with multiple daily text questions sent to respondents over a 30-day period. The assessment technology, SMS surveying, has the potential to significantly improve the reliability and validity with which substance-use data on homeless youth and young adults are gathered. The ability to study changing patterns of substance use and uncover successful protective factors will inform intervention strategies to improve health outcomes for homeless youth and young adults––and ultimately prevent life on the streets from becoming permanent.