A new study of homeless youth in Illinois has troubling news about the population's pregnancy rate. In 1985, when the last big study of the state's homeless teens was done, researchers estimated the population at 21,000 statewide. At that time, 33 percent of homeless young women reported that they were, or had previously been, pregnant. Now, 20 years later, state officials have updated the study, and while the total number of homeless youth has swelled to around 25,000, the percentage of homeless girls who have been pregnant has more than doubled, to 68 percent.
Of course, there are multiple reasons that more than two-thirds (!) of homeless teens in Illinois would be pregnant. A homeless young woman likely has less access to contraceptives than teens who get regular visits with doctors and school nurses, and she probably has less money to spend on birth control, anyway. And unfortunately, homeless women are at a higher risk for both rape and so-called survivor sex.
But the Illinois study suggests that it's not just the risks associated with living on the streets that are boosting the homeless-teen pregnancy rate. Outreach workers reported that many of the teenage girls they worked with became homeless because they were pregnant, and not the other way around.
The results of the Illinois study may not represent the rest of the country. It's possible that the state is experiencing an unusual boom in homeless, pregnant teens. But Illinois is a state in which pharmacists are required to fill emergency-contraception prescriptions, and where teens don't have to get parental consent to have an abortion. Do those factors affect teen pregnancy or runaway rates in states where it's even harder for sexually active teens to get E.C. or terminate a pregnancy? It's time for a national study.
And, the Chicago Tribune notes, it's time for a few other things, too -- namely "more services for homeless youths and females in particular; more attention to pregnant teens; better strategies to prevent teen pregnancy, including sex education in schools; and availability of affordable day care as the teens struggle to reclaim their lives."