COLUMBIA, Mo. — Is there a connection between homelessness and violence? It’s a question the Centers for Disease Control wants to be answered, which is why the federal government is giving a grant to a University of Missouri professor and his research team. 

The team will study homeless youth between the ages of 18 to 24 and ask whether they’ve been exposed to firearm violence. A St. Louis facility is the center of attention for the research that will start next year. 

“It seems that whether you have stricter firearm violence laws or not, it doesn’t apply to this vulnerable population,” said Hsun-Ta Hsu, associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Social Work. 

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) 2021 Homeless Assessment Report, there are roughly 4,000 people experiencing homelessness in Missouri. Of that, 338 are under the age of 24. 

“It seems like the current evidence-based interventions or policy solutions that people are proposing might not be able to reach this population,” Hsu said. 

In a previous health study for the University of Missouri, which was solely focused on homeless youth, Hsu said he was shocked at the number of encounters they had with firearms. 

“We found it interesting that firearm violence is pretty a prevalent experience faced among youth experiencing homelessness,” he said. “We found that 40% of them have been exposed to firearm violence, whether they were perpetrated the firearm violent or whether they have witnessed or directly victimized by firearm violence.”

Hsu said in his study, he found that more than one third of them had access to firearms. He and the other researchers were awarded $1.6 million from the CDC and will focus on a drop-in center just north of downtown St. Louis called Epworth. 

“Drop-in centers are usually have lower barriers without a lot of regulations,” Hsu said. “They provide needs like food, showers and computers. Usually, shelters have regulations like you cannot bring your pets, or you have to be sober.”

While Hsu’s group will be working in St. Louis, another team of researchers will be in Los Angeles surveying young adults also suffering from homelessness. The hopes of this research will lead to better policies. 

“I believe based on the current increasing rent, the shortage in affordable housing, I have concerns that we are going to see an increase in homelessness,” Hsu said. 

He said there was a decrease in the homeless population for nearly a decade until 2018, when the numbers started to rise. 

“We want to identify what may be the protective social ties that can help them reduce their risk,” Hsu said. “What we do know is this is a really prevalent experience among this population because of the unstable housing. They don’t have a physical environment to protect them. You don’t have a door to lock.”

Hsu said the research will start in March and participants will be asked about their recent interaction with firearms and where they congregate at, at different times of the day. Then, researchers will use Google Street View to look at those hangout areas. The goal is to interview 250 youth in St. Louis and 500 in Los Angeles.