Risk and Resilience: Differences in Risk Factors and Health Outcomes Between Homeless and Non-Homeless Students in 2017 YRBS Data

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) was first developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1990 to assess the health risk behaviors of youth and adults in the United States. For the first time since the survey has been widely administered, the 2017 YRBS optional question list included two questions pertaining to homelessness. Using this YRBS data from 17 states (Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin), we conducted an analysis of differences in seven self-reported risk factors and health outcomes between high school students experiencing homelessness and those not experiencing homelessness. The results were striking and heartbreaking.

Broadly, our findings demonstrate that young people experience homelessness at an even higher rate than currently measured by the United States Department of Education. The YRBS indicates that 4.9% of students surveyed in the 17 states experienced homelessness at some point during the 2016-2017 school year, while public schools reported only 2.57% of their students as experiencing homelessness. The significant under-identification indicated by the YRBS means as many as one million students experiencing homelessness are not receiving the services that are their right under federal law.

Additionally, young people who experience homelessness engage in a wide variety of health risk behaviors at significantly higher rates than their housed peers. Youth experiencing homelessness were:

We supplemented our analysis of YRBS data with qualitative data gathered from youth who had experienced homelessness, including their recommendations for policy and practice. Of the 49 surveyed from SchoolHouse Connection’s Youth Leadership and Scholarship Program and the National Network for Youth’s National Youth Advisory Council:

Policies and practices to improve implementation of the protections and supports provided to homeless children and youth by federal law:


Engagement and participation in school:

Access to mental health services:

Policies and practices to address and mitigate highly prevalent risk behaviors:

Establish a culture of care:

Empower self-advocacy:

Create physical safe spaces: