Do People Incarcerated before Age 25 Experience a Longer Duration of Homelessness?

Does the Timing of Incarceration Impact the Timing and Duration of Homelessness? Evidence from “The Transitions to Housing” Study
Robynn Cox, John Lahey, Harmony Rhoades, Benjamin Henwood, and Suzanne Wenzel
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People who experience homelessness after incarceration are likely to suffer disruptions to their social development, undermining their socioeconomic mobility. Adolescents and young adults ages 18 to 25, or transitional age youth, who experience incarceration are particularly vulnerable to housing insecurity, including literal homelessness, defined by authors as “living in a shelter, on the street, in an abandoned building, in a garage or shed, in an indoor public space, in a vehicle, or on public transportation.” This study theoretically and empirically investigates whether the age when a person first experiences incarceration is associated with the timing of a person’s first experience of literal homelessness and the total amount of time the person experiences homelessness.

The study used a sample of 225 homeless adults transitioning to permanent supportive housing who were incarcerated before being homeless. The authors tested the relationship between the age when a person was incarcerated and the timing and duration of their first experience of homelessness. Controls included age (birth cohort), gender, race, and ethnicity. Additional variables in this study included relationship status, foster care experience, educational attainment, and full-time employment status.

The study concluded that people incarcerated before age 25 are more likely to experience homelessness at significantly younger ages and for longer periods of time. They also had significantly higher rates of adverse effects, such as chronic mental health problems and substance abuse. The longer duration of homelessness among individuals incarcerated as youth appears to be driven by greater time spent incarcerated and lower levels of education.  Among those incarcerated as adolescents, people incarcerated at age 15 are especially vulnerable: they spend a significantly longer time in literal homelessness than those incarcerated at age 16 and age17.  Acknowledged limitations include the small sample size, quality of reentry services, lack of generalizability because of lack of representation across age groups, lack of data pertaining to criminal offense type, type of adult correctional facilities where people were incarcerated, and the use of cross-sectional data limiting a full understanding of the dynamic process that links first incarcerations and homeless status.

Key findings
  • People incarcerated as adolescents are incarcerated more than twice as long as transitional-age youth and more than five times longer than adults over the span of their lives.
  • Life outcomes are affected by both the experience of adolescent and transitional-age youth incarceration and by the duration of the incarceration.
  • On average, adolescents incarcerated before they’re 18 years old experience literal homelessness for the first time 9.8 years earlier than those incarcerated after age 24. Transitional age youth incarcerated between the ages of 18 and 24 experience literal homelessness for the first time 5.1 years earlier. 
  • Those incarcerated as adolescents spent an average of 3,095 days experiencing literal homelessness, those incarcerated as transitional-age youth spent an average of 1,853 days literally homeless and those incarcerated greater than 24 spent on average 1,598 days in literal homelessness.
  • Among people incarcerated as a young people, women experienced homelessness 2,240 days longer than men. 
Policy implications
  • Incarcerating people younger than 25 years old, especially during adolescence, contributes to long-term, detrimental consequences that undermine socioeconomic stability and success.
  • Reentry programs should explicitly confront homelessness among incarcerated people.
  • To avoid subsequent incarceration and homelessness among adolescents and transitional-aged youth, aid agencies should conduct risk assessments that include early experiences of incarceration and provide substantive housing, education, resources, and health support services.
  • Targeted supports and services should be provided to girls and women who have experienced an incarceration because they are more vulnerable to longer durations of homelessness.

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