Young homeless girls and women are more susceptible to engaging in risky behavior than their male counterparts because of their different social groups, according to a new study out of UC San Francisco.
The reason why the two groups are split involves friends.
Young homeless men and boys have more same-gender friends than females, a factor that the study found was key to lowering the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection and encouraging safe sex, said Dr. Colette L. Auerswald, the study's senior investigator.
Young females who lost contact with their families were more likely to have had sex with intravenous drug users, according to the study. However, they were more likely to practice safe sex if they had a same-gender friendship or were a member of a social network with stable housing.
Abusive and controlling partners often influence why females have fewer same-gender friends, Auerswald said.
"We know that from other research we've done that these relationships are often very exploitative, they confer much higher [health] risk," she said.
Other research suggests that homeless youths' social networks differ based on race.
Black youths were more likely to couch-surf between homes of different relatives, distant or otherwise, Auerswald said, while "white kids are more likely to be what we called literally homeless, spending time in places not suitable for human habitation, sleeping in a park, sleeping in a car, places like that, which reflects their separation from family."
Runaway youths become homeless because of family conflicts, neglect, alcohol or drug addiction by a family member, pregnancy and rejection over sexual orientation, according to the California Homeless Youth Project, a state sponsored research group.
Auerswald said that while conducting research, she often thought of her own teenage daughter and wished the youths she spoke with could have had supportive households.
"We have to think less about what kind of excuses we can find to incarcerate kids and ask why there aren't more adults taking care of them," she said. "These kids are not only salvageable, they're treasures."
The recently released study was part of a series from UCSF called the "Street Youth in Social Environments Study," which looks at how friends, family and social networks affect the health of homeless youths in San Francisco. Research was conducted in 2004, and the analysis of the data was released July 17.
Auerswald said she hopes the findings will influence public policy for a largely ignored and vulnerable population.
As of last year, there were more than 5,700 homeless youths in San Francisco, defined as being 12 to 24 years old, according to data from Larkin Street Youth Services, which provides shelter, counseling and other services. They often sleep at night in parks, cars and abandoned buildings.