Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Public Health (MPH)


School of Public Health

First Advisor

Danya Keene


Objectives: The goal of this project is to better understand the intersection between food insecurity and youth homelessness, and more extensively explore how youth develop survival skills while combating barriers to healthy eating.

Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 30 youth (18-25 years old) experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles (LA). Interviews were conducted on site at a drop-in center in LA. An Outreach & Engagement Program Manager assisted the principle interviewer in criterion sampling. Each interview lasted approximately 20-80 minutes and participants were compensated with $20. Data saturation was determined through preliminary analysis, and thematic coding was conducted through Dedoose.

Results: Without consistent sources of food and stable housing, youth self-reported various skillsets and street knowledge uniquely nested within their experience combating both homelessness and food insecurity. Participants in this study described instances where convenient and legal food obtainment was almost impossible due to a plethora of homeless-specific barriers, and developed numerous and creative strategies to address street-survival related to unequal food access. Youth described three primary domains of strategies to address their food insecurity, including (1) stealing food from grocery stores, (2) “spanging” (asking for spare change), and (3) forming “street families” (social support networks). Many respondents self-reported high rates of stealing, specifically from retail supermarkets, because they firmly believed that food was a basic human right and that starving was not an option. “Spanging,” “white-boxing,” and “flying a sign” were all common forms of obtaining food immediately on the street. Lastly, youth described forming close social networks as a means to establish stronger food access channels. These street families operated with a “share what you have” mentality, such that food donations, stolen food, and food purchased using government subsidies would be shared among the street family.

Discussion: While increasing social capital has been found to improve health and wellbeing, the acts of stealing and spanging place homeless youth at a higher risk of street victimization, stigma, and incarceration. Food insecurity is prominent in the lives of youth experiencing homelessness, and there is a need to address this public health dilemma through innovate interventions, particularly programs that are culturally cognizant of the homeless experience. Service providers should also improve accessibility to subsidized foods, specifically during hours of non-operation, in order to prevent behaviors that increase risk of harm for youth experiencing homelessness.


This is an Open Access Thesis.

Open Access

This Article is Open Access