Compared to the general population, homeless youth experience mental health problems on a much larger scale. For some, their homelessness is caused by these issues, yet many also develop poor mental health as a result of prolonged homelessness. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Children who experience homelessness have significantly higher rates of emotional, behavioral, and immediate and long-term health problems.” (Mental and Substance Use Disorders and Homelessness Resources for Youth) There is also a lack of resources for increasing the emotional well-being of the homeless—therapy among other aids are expensive and often inaccessible. Furthermore, the majority of organizations that offer outreach and supplies for homeless people, including youth, prioritize survival over emotional needs. While access to food, water, and shelter are critical for staying alive, good mental health can be the factor that leads to long-term progress.

In order to improve the mental health of the homeless population, widespread access to therapy and health care to cover the cost of it would be ideal. However, this plan is unlikely to receive funding due to the surface demand for basic survival provisions. Therefore, an educational approach to this dilemma may be the most cost-effective and realistic. With education, the discipline of positive psychology may be the best suited to address a variety of mental health problems. Unlike traditional psychology, which focuses on “fixing” each individual, positive psychology can be applied to any situation. Its concepts and practices work to help anyone boost their well-being, and distributing educational materials about positive psychology to homeless youth could have exceptional results. Nevertheless, this field consists of many theories and topics, so I chose to concentrate my project on meaning and connection.

Arbor Circle Tackles Youth Homelessness with Host Home Program - Grand  Rapids Magazine
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Meaning, Purpose, and Connection

Meaning is defined as a sense of fulfillment. Anything can give you meaning, like working on something you’re passionate about, spending time with someone you care about, or going to school. Any activity that causes a state of flow (losing yourself or your awareness due to intense focus), also provides meaning. As long as you feel you have an impact or feel needed, your life has meaning. 

Purpose, on the other hand, can be more complicated to identify. For some, their purpose comes from religion—devotion to higher power might give them an idea of “why they’re here.” A job or being a parent could be a person’s purpose as well. In simple terms, your purpose is something you feel you give back to the world or that you feel you were meant to do. Although my project is centered around meaning and connection, rather than purpose, it’s important to make the distinction between purpose and meaning.

Finally, connection is based in human interaction. Any social experience involves connection; a conversation with a friend, a family gathering, or even a class be connective. Without it, people easily become isolated, lonely, and depressed. Still, some require less human connection than others, or may be overwhelmed by excess social interaction. As with any practice, connection must be balanced to fulfill your social needs and to have a positive effect on your well-being.

p:ear | Creatively Mentoring Homeless Youth | Portland, OR
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Mental Health and Homelessness

As stated above, the homeless experience mental health problems at a disproportionate rate. An evaluation done by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2015 determined that 25% of the 564,708 homeless people in the U.S. had a severe mental illness, and 45% had a mental health problem. In contrast, only 4.2% of American adults had a diagnosed serious mental illness in 2016. Homelessness can also intensify mental health issues, because it’s often a traumatic experience given the challenging environmental, social, and economic factors that homeless people must endure. For youth in particular, homelessness can also put them at risk for substance abuse, violent behavior, and learning disabilities. Above all, a lack of support and stability perpetuate stressors and trauma for homeless youth.

Check in With Yourself

To better understand how your sense of connection and meaning fit into your life, consider taking the following surveys:

The Meaning in Life Questionnaire from the Authentic Happiness website made by the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center estimates the level of meaning in your life based on your answers. You will need to make a login to do the questionnaire, but you do not need any other access information.

The Connection to Humanity Quiz from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good website, which offers information on the science behind well-being, calculates a connection score according to your responses. An account is not required to complete this survey.

Brené Brown Quote: “We are hardwired to connect with others, it's what  gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffe...”
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My Response

To brainstorm a project that would work to help homeless youth learn about positive psychology practices and concepts related to meaning and connection, while also finding a format that would be accessible to many homeless kids and young adults, I interviewed Nili Yosha (and ended up talking to a number of other people she works with). Nili is the executive director of the nonprofit organization, Outside the Frame, which teaches homeless and other marginalized youth how to make films and tell their stories through film. They give these young people an audience for their message, an outlet for their creativity, a skill that could help them get a job and be successful at it, and the opportunity to heal and reflect on their traumas. This interview helped me understand the homeless experience a bit better, as well as the power of film as a medium. As a result, I decided to make a video as a part of my project.

I discussed this briefly in the introduction video, but the primary way I chose to share educational materials about meaning and connection is through a mini-course. This course can be accessed here through Canvas, and also here in the PDF printable copy. I wanted to provide both options so that those who don’t have access to the internet can still take it. The mini-course is comprised of seven assignments, and is designed to increase awareness of meaning, connection, and practices that will foster them. To get a glimpse of what the course looks like, below is the video I made, which explores these concepts in various speeches and interviews.

To view the course, here are the links in case you missed them above.

Meaning and Connection for Homeless Youth (Canvas)

Meaning and Connection for Homeless Youth (PDF)


What You Can Do

To click on the links above, navigate to the PDF Copy of the infographic.

Please respond to the following questions in the comments:

  1. How am I going to help homeless youth using the suggestions outlined in the infographic?
  2. What does homelessness look like where I live?
  3. How has my understanding of meaning and connection grown or changed?
    Works Cited


Hi! I'm Twyla, a junior at Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon. I've been taking Positive Psychology this semester!


  1. Twyla, I learned a lot from your project. I appreciated how you clearly laid out the concepts of meaning, purpose, and connection and then applied them to your research and work. Your Canvas course looks great and I loved your infographic, as well. Great job!

  2. Hi Derek! Thank you so much. I’m glad you liked it.

  3. Hi Twyla, your project was very educational on positive psychology and the mental health crisis in the homeless population! Your infographics were very informative, and I loved the idea of having a canvas course to interact with to teach these lessons. I plan on helping the homeless youth by educating myself and spreading more awareness on the topic. Homelessness is a big problem where I live, and this helped increase my understanding of what they may be going through. Overall, I really enjoyed your project, and I hope you can implement your course in the future!

  4. Kelsey—I appreciate your feedback! I’m happy to hear that you’re going to help spread awareness, and that you learned something from my project.

  5. Hi Twyla! I thought you did an excellent job on your project. I like how you formatted it, starting with the puropose and the “why” of your project, moving on to explain the deeper context and terms necessary to your project, how it is affecting society, and then ways that people can help. Excellent work!

  6. Thank you, Addy!

  7. Twyla, tu trabajo aquí es absolutamente impresionante. Tu habilidad para usar difersos formatos para dirigir la información a tu audiencia es simplemente magistral. La idea dual de conexión y aislamiento en las comunidades de personas sin hogar, particularmente los jóvenes, es increíblemente relevante. Felicidades por tu trabajo.

  8. Muchas gracias, Enrique.

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