Conflict and homeless youth

(Photo: Wokandapix)

(Photo: Wokandapix)

This is an article I wrote over 20 years ago in Youth Studies.  When writing about my response to the Four Corners program, Australia’s Shame, about the treatment of teenagers in detention in the Northern Territory, I had another look at it. While I would probably change some of the language, unfortunately much of it still seems to be  relevant. 

During two and a half years working at a medium-term accommodation unit (called The Space in this article), I became increasingly concerned about the negative effect conflict had on most residents. At the same time I was concerned that many of my attempts to teach conflict resolution appeared to have little influence. For instance, during one workshop teaching the joys of conflict resolution, I had to intervene at lunch to stop two participants attacking each other with stones and a plank of wood. Something was not working.

Speaking to many of the residents, especially the boys, it was clear they didn’t have the skills to deal with much of the conflict in their lives and they often didn’t see conflict as something they could resolve positively. Violence was the accepted response to conflict.

What effect does conflict have on homeless youth? Why didn’t my attempts at teaching conflict resolution appear to be working? Where do we start addressing the problem? In trying to answer these questions, I will consider all the residents who stayed at The Space between 1 July 1991 and 30 June 1993 and investigate the effect conflict had on their placement. I will then develop a brief profile of the residents in order to identify a major barrier they face in learning conflict resolution – low self-esteem. I hope to encourage youth workers, and others, to accept the challenge of discovering more effective ways of teaching conflict resolution to disadvantaged youth.

The Space: Conflict and placement breakdown

The Space is situated in a regional NSW town with referrals coming from not only the town but also the surrounding rural area. Up to six 13 to 18-year-olds reside in the fully supported unit for a maximum of nine to 12 months.

During the two years between 1 July 1991 and 30 June 1993, 40 teenagers resided at The Space, of whom two are still residents. Their ages ranged from 11 to 18, with twice as many boys as girls (see Table 1).

Table 1: Age and gender of residents. (Age at leaving The Space or at 30 June 1993, if still residents)

Age Male Female Total
11 1 0 1
12 0 0 0
13 5 2 7
14 5 2 7
15 9 4 13
16 1 2 3
17 6 2 8
18 0 1 0
Total 27 16 40

As can be seen in Table 2, of the 38 residents who had left, only five residents stayed the maximum nine to 12 months. The average stay was 15.6 weeks, but only 13 stayed even this long or longer. The most common was six weeks or under.

Table 2: Length of stay by gender

Weeks Male
Female (n=12) Total
0-6 13 3 16
7-12 3 4 7
13-18 1 1 2
19-24 3 0 3
25-30 3 1 4
31-36 0 1 1
37-42 0 0 0
43-48 2 1 3
49-54 1 1 2

Conflict played a significant role in the departure of most of the residents. Twenty of the 38 residents were asked to leave by staff and a further 11 decided to leave in negative (-ve) circumstances (see Table 3). Negative circumstances were ones in which the resident’s behaviour was leading them to being forced to leave (e.g. major conflict with staff), the resident left because they disliked the centre or there had just been a major conflict between them and staff. Only four had planned departures (i.e. the resident and staff had worked out a plan which was followed through) and a further three decided to leave in positive (+ve) circumstances (i.e. they suddenly decided to move to a relatively positive living situation, normally with family members).

Table 3: Type of departure by age

Age   Asked to leave Decided to leave (-ve) Left on own accord (+ve) Planned departure
<13 1 0 0 0
13 5 1 1 0
14 6 1 0 0
15 4 6 1 1
16 0 1 0 1
17 4 2 1 1
18 0 0 0 1
Total 20 11 4 4

Of the residents who were asked to leave, over half were forced to move due to conflict (see Table 4). This conflict took various forms. Nine of the 12 either committed acts of violence against other residents or physically threatened staff or residents. The level of violence included a knife attack, physical fights, throwing furniture around and attacking a worker’s car. One resident, who was forced to leave after committing an indecent assault on another resident, was also occasionally violent; another resident, asked to leave for damaging the centre, was frequently in conflict with staff, and one of the residents involved in thefts was often involved in major conflict with staff and residents.

In other words, conflict was a major factor in the decision to ask residents to leave in 15 out of the 20 cases. Violence was a contributing factor in ten of these cases.

Table 4: Main reason residents were asked to leave

Reason Male
Conflict 7 5 12
Drugs 2 0 2
Not studying 2 0 2
Theft 2 0 2
Indecent assault 1 0 1
Property damage 1 0 1

When residents who decided to leave in negative circumstances are considered, conflict plays an even greater role. Of the eleven who left under such circumstances conflict played a significant role in nine cases. For some, it was conflict with other residents but for most it was conflict over rules or staff decisions.

Conflict thus played a significant role in 24 of the 31 cases where residents were asked or decided to leave under negative circumstances. For many of these young people, conflict had also led to them being asked to leave, or leaving, other units and it continued to adversely affect their lives. A number were banned from virtually every residential unit in the region.

Morrissette and McIntyre (1989, p.603) argue that many residential placements of homeless youth fail “due to unresolved conflict stemming from a host of interactional problems involving the young person”. Frequently the removal of a young person from conflictual situations is seen as a solution to the problem. If staff and residents had greater skills in dealing with conflict, it is probable some placements would be more successful.

While many of the conflicts faced by young people in residential care arise from their previous life experience, they face many conflicts “here and now” with staff and residents. Such conflicts provide enormous scope for staff and residents to explore better ways of dealing with conflict.

The Space residents’ life experiences

Teaching conflict resolution to homeless young people is not an easy task. Analysis of the life experience of the residents helps identify poor self-esteem as a major barrier to successfully handling conflict. As shown in Table 5, most residents at The Space had been subjected to physical and/or sexual abuse. A greater percentage of females were sexually abused than males, but the percentage of males and females who had been physically abused was similar. Violence was a common experience for most of the residents.

Table 5: Physical and sexual abuse by gender

Male (n=27) Female (n=13) Total (n=40)
Sexual abuse



Yes 6  8 14
No 20  2 22
Possible 1  3  4
Physical abuse


Yes  23  11  34
No  4 2 6

Nearly all residents had left school early. Twenty-three residents did an education program run by The Space which focused on social skills and basic numeracy and literacy. Four were attending school, four were doing the Certificate of General Education (a Year 10 equivalent) at TAFE, and nine attended various other courses or training programs, including the Help for Early Leavers Program, Skillshare and an alternative education unit run by the education department. Some residents undertook more than one educational activity while nine had not participated in any educational activity while in residency.

Of the 15 residents aged 14 or under, and required by law to attend school, only one was actually doing so. Another two were attending an alternative program of the education department but only for three (short) days a week. None of the residents had completed Year 10 or equivalent, although four were likely to complete it in 1993 and a few others had the potential to complete it in the near future. It is worth noting that while no figures are available, conflict was a major problem for many of the residents when they were at school or attending some other training program.

Most of the residents had been in trouble with the police or been before the courts, although the boys were more likely to have had legal problems than girls. Residents had faced a number of charges, mostly for crimes against property such as theft and vandalism. A few had been charged or officially warned by the police for assault.

The profile of residents at The Space is similar to those found in other studies (e.g. Burdekin 1989; Howard 1991). They are likely to have been physically abused and, if they are female, sexually abused. They are likely to have left school early and, if they are male, to have been in trouble with the law.

With such backgrounds, they are likely to have poor self-esteem which in turn makes it harder to handle conflict in a positive manner.


There is strong anecdotal evidence that homeless young people generally have low self-esteem. The example of “Doug” is not uncommon. When Doug moved into The Space he was 13 years old. He was referred by a Juvenile Justice Officer after his father and step mother stated they couldn’t cope with him. His childhood had been traumatic and he had been subjected to physical abuse. When Doug moved in his self-esteem was very low: he walked with stooped shoulders, was reluctant to look people in the eye, spoke in mumbles and frequently burnt his own things and himself. Gradually his self esteem appeared to improve and he stopped much of his self-destructive behaviour. Unfortunately, when he was asked to leave some of the progress was lost.

A number of studies have supported what youth workers have learned in practice, that low self-esteem is common in homeless young people. Brennan (1980) found “throwaways” (adolescents forced to leave home) to have low self-esteem including a sense of powerlessness, normlessness and delinquent behaviour. A study of 2154 North American adolescents (Youngs, Rathge, Mullis & Mullis 1990) found that those who had experienced several events of negative stress tended to have lower self-esteem. A study of 53 homeless adolescents in Brisbane found they scored high on measures of social isolation, depression, hostility and antisocial tendencies (Hier, Korboot & Schweitzer 1990). Howard (1991) in a survey of 92 “street youth” found they tended not to like themselves and believed they had “lots of problems”. A study by Miner (1991) of 150 adolescents in Sydney (including 30 who were homeless) found that the homeless adolescents were depressed, hopeless and had low self-esteem. (It is unfortunate that Miner appears to use “homeless youth” and “runaways” interchangeably thus failing to recognise that many homeless young people have been forced to leave home.)

The negative effects of unemployment on self-esteem have been widely demonstrated (see, for example, Patton & Noller 1990, Miner 1991). The educational level of The Space residents makes their job prospects very poor and thus their self-esteem is unlikely to improve through gaining employment.

Conflict resolution and self-esteem

The low self-esteem of homeless young people makes it harder for them to learn from some of the traditional methods of teaching conflict resolution. Many of the techniques and principles of conflict resolution appear to require good self-esteem, and unless it is recognised that this base is missing, teaching these skills is likely to be unsuccessful.

The 12 skills of conflict resolution developed by the Conflict Resolution Network (Cornelius & Faire 1989; Cornelius, Hollier & Murray 1993) can be considered as an example. Table 6 shows the related attitudes needed for each of these skills. It can be argued that for most of the skills listed, the related attitude requires good self-esteem.

Table 6: The twelve skills of conflict resolution and related attitudes (based on Cornelius, Hollier and Murray, 1993: H12.1-2)

Conflict resolution skills Related attitudes
Win/Win approach Wanting what’s fair for everyone.
Creative response Seeing conflict as an opportunity.
Empathy Valuing individual’s differences.
Appropriate assertiveness Having respect for all people’s needs and rights. Wanting to meet my own needs and rights without violating those others.
Co-operative power Wanting to use my personal power in a way that doesn’t diminish others.
Managing emotions Believing that expressions of emotions plays an essential part in creating richer relationships.
Willingness to resolve Recognising that it is valuable to explore my part of the problem.
Mapping the conflict Wanting what’s fair for everyone.
Designing options Believing that it’s worthwhile to explore a range of creative alternatives.
Negotiation  Believing that needs based negotiation can be successful.
Mediation  Having faith that people in mediation are the ones who are best able to decide on appropriate solutions. Believing that a third party can provide an environment to support other resolving their own conflicts.
Broadening perspectives  Knowing that my perspective is only part of the bigger picture.


Conflict was an important factor in the departure of many of the residents at The Space. For 24 of the 31 cases where residents left in negative circumstances, conflict was one of the underlying reasons for the departure. Teaching positive conflict resolution needs to be a priority for accommodation units but poor self-esteem is a major barrier. It would help if staff demonstrated positive, affirming ways of responding to conflict and for accommodation units to have clear processes for dealing with conflict which are known by both residents and staff. These processes should respect the rights of the residents and seek to improve the self-esteem of all involved.

I am convinced that youth workers, especially in residential units, need to understand more about conflict and its resolution so we can be more effective in teaching conflict resolution and handling it ourselves.

Unless the removal of a resident from the conflict is to be seen as a “solution”, residential units need to discover ways of handling conflict positively and creatively. Youth workers have the perfect opportunity of exploring conflict in a way which is relevant to teenagers whose needs are not always met by traditional methods of teaching conflict resolution.

Originally published in

Stuart, G. (1994). Conflict and homeless youth. Youth Studies Australia, 13(2), 27-30.

If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. Australia’s Shame – some thoughts on the treatment of youth in detention
  2. Nonviolence as a Framework for Youth Work Practice
  3. Youth work and the police
  4. Principles of nonviolence
  5. 12 principles of a problem solving approach to conflict resolution
  6. What are Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops?


Burdekin, B. (1989). Our Homeless Children: Report of the National Inquiry into Homeless Children by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Canberra: AGPS.

Brennan, T. (1980). Mapping the diversity among runaways. Journal of Family Issues, 1(2), 189-209.

Cornelius, H. & Faire, S. (1989). Everyone Can Win: How to resolve conflict. Brookvale: Simon and Schuster.

Cornelius, H., Hollier, F. & Murray, K. (1993). Conflict Resolution Trainers’ Manual: 12 Skills. Sydney: Conflict Resolution Network.

Hier, S., Korboot, P. & Schweitzer, R. (1990). Social adjustment and Symptomatology in two types of homeless adolescents: Runaways and throwaways. Adolescence, 25(100), 761-71.

Howard, J. (1991). Street Youth Went to School Once… or Twice… Education Australia, (13), 22-4.

Miner, M. (1991) The adjustment of long term homeless youth. Australian Journal of Social Issues, 26(1), 24.

Morrissette, P. & McIntyre, S. (1989) Homeless young people in residential care. Social Casework: The Journal of Contemporary Social Work, 70, 603-10.

Patton, W. & Noller, P. (1990) Adolescent self concept: Effects of being employed, unemployed or continuing at school. Australian Journal of Psychology, 42(3), 247-59.

Youngs, G., Rathge, R., Mullis, R. & Mullis, A. (1990) Adolescent stress and self-esteem. Adolescence, 25(98), 333-41.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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