Exploring Contextual Factors of Youth Homelessness And Sexual Risk Behaviors: A Qualitative Study

Diane Santa Maria Sarah C. Narendorf Yoonsook Ha Noel Bezette-Flores

First published online:

| DOI: https://doi.org/10.1363/47e6715
Abstract / Summary

HIV disproportionately affects homeless youth, and interventions to date have had minimal success in reducing sexual risk behaviors in this population. Few qualitative studies have been conducted to provide insight into the influence of homelessness-related factors on sexual risk behaviors.


A qualitative study with a quantitative component was conducted with a nonprobability sample of 64 homeless youth aged 14–24; participants were recruited from a variety of venues in Houston between October 2013 and March 2014. Thirteen focus group discussions were conducted; thematic analysis was used to identify themes related to HIV risk.


Participants were predominantly black (75%), sheltered (67%) and aged 18 or older (77%). Youth discussed how the circumstances of their homelessness and the struggle to meet their immediate needs led to behaviors and experiences that put them at risk for HIV. Three themes emerged: Homeless youth frequently engage in risky sexual behavior, sometimes as a way to cope with stress; they often trade sex, either voluntarily or involuntarily, for such necessities as money or a place to sleep; and many experienced childhood sexual victimization or have been victimized since becoming homeless. Youth also described how stress, stigma and self-reliance contributed to their involvement in HIV risk behaviors.


HIV prevention methods that target stress and stigma while respecting youths’ self-reliance may help reduce sexual risk behaviors. Further research is needed to determine suitable behavioral change techniques to address these potentially modifiable factors.

Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2015, 47(4): TK, doi: 10.1363/47e6715

Author's Affiliations

Diane Santa Maria is assistant professor of nursing, University of Texas School of Nursing, Houston; Sarah C. Narendorf is assistant professor of social work, University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work; Yoonsook Ha is assistant professor of social work, Boston University School of Social Work; and Noel Bezette-Flores is assistant professor of social work, University of Houston–Downtown.


The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Guttmacher Institute.