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HIV risk behaviours and seroprevalence are particularly high among street youth. Though many programmes have been designed to serve them, street youth have low rates of service utilization. The aim of this street-based, ethnographic project was to study the social and cultural context of street life in this population. Data were collected by participant observation, exploratory interviews and semi-structured interviews. In total, 20 street youths (15–23 years old; six female), recruited from street sites in San Francisco, participated in the interviews. Field notes and transcriptions were analysed using an inductive technique for model building. This analysis yielded a proposed model of the life cycle of youth homelessness. In the ‘first on the street’ stage, youth face an intense psychological feeling of ‘outsiderness’, and an urgency to meet basic needs. These stresses either lead to an escape from street life or to a process of acculturation to the street. ‘Initiation to the street’ is facilitated by ‘street mentors’, who provide youths with survival skills. In the ‘stasis’ stage, youths reach a tenuous equilibrium in which they can meet their basic needs. A strong ‘street ethic’ allows youth to rationalize significant conflicts and frequent physical suffering. Youth in stasis are repeatedly thrown into ‘disequilibrium’, crises that frequently cause them to come into greater contact with mainstream society. After repeated episodes of disequilibrium, some youth ‘extricate’ themselves from street life, finding a new identity in mainstream society. Otherwise, youth return to the street, in an episode of ‘recidivism’. The life cycle model suggests that street youth who are most open to intervention are those who are in ‘transitional states’, i.e. those who have just arrived on the street or those who are in crisis (disequilibrium). If this model is validated in a larger population of youth, programmes that are aimed at these two stages in the life cycle could potentially effectively complement existing programmes, which are usually focused on youth in stasis.