The Lived Experience of Homeless Youth: A Narrative Approach

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Homeless youth are an understudied and stigmatized group. In their daily lives, these youth confront negative social perceptions and harrowing circumstances related to survival, which may present challenges to the construction of a meaningful, coherent identity. Using the theoretical notion of narrative engagement (Hammack & Cohler, 2009), this study explores how youth experiencing homelessness make meaning of their lived experiences and engage with dominant discourses about homelessness that stigmatize and devalue them. A narrative analysis of 4 case studies, drawn from in-depth life story interviews with 11 unhoused youth in the United States, suggests that despite experience of struggle and loss, participants demonstrated the ability to (a) resist contamination through the construction of redemptive narratives, grounded in agency and resilience; and (b) resist dominant narratives about homelessness by attributing their circumstances to external causes and by critiquing institutions and figures perceived as holding power. In doing so, participants refused to adopt a “criminal” or “client” master narrative of homeless identity, instead affirming the value and worth of their knowledge, experiences, and identities. This study reveals the active agency of homeless youth to construct counternarratives in which they may restory their identities to find resilience in the margins.

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