Natasha Slesnick, (505) 768-0146
Robert Meyers, (505) 842-8932
Steve Carr, (505) 277-1821

October 25, 2001


University of New Mexico Center for Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addictions (CASAA) Assistant Research Professor, Dr. Natasha Slesnick, has been awarded two grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for $2.7 million for Project STAR (Serving & Treating Albuquerque’s Runaways) and Project TEAM (Treatment Evaluation and Adult Mentoring), programs that will provide and test treatment for substance abuse among homeless street youth.

The first grant, a four-year, $2,205,354 million award, was given by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and is geared toward treatment only. The second, a two-year grant awarded for $495,471 by the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT), will help fund both the treatment and a mentoring program. Both the NIDA and the CSAT fall under the umbrella of the NIH.

The purpose of the grants is to work with homeless youth ages 14-20 who have no place of shelter and are in need of services and shelter where he/she can receive supervision and care.

“These are one of the first treatment evaluation projects with street youth in the country,” said Slesnick. “Homeless youth will be randomly assigned to either the Community Reinforcement Approach and adult mentoring or service as usual through a drop-in center. All youths will be contacted in intervals of three and six months so that we can compare our intervention to what the drop-in center provides.”

The innovative treatment method being tested, the Community Reinforcement Approach or CRA, was developed by Co-Investigator, Dr. Robert Meyers. The Community Reinforcement Approach is an empirically-based multifaceted approach to substance abuse treatment that also addresses many of the clinical needs of multi-problem homeless individuals.

The CRA uses a theoretical perspective based on the belief that environmental positive reinforcers (e.g., money, positive relationships) and punishers (e.g., health problems, loss of job) can play a powerful role in encouraging or discouraging behavior. CRA uses several different strategies to address the multiple problems that these youth face. CRA is multi-systemic in that it directs intervention to the individual and their relationships, as well as to social contexts that influence them.

Meyers states, “CRA has been shown to be effective with several different adult populations, including homeless adults. Because it is flexible and can address a wide range of problems that people may have, we’re very optimistic about this approach for street youth.”

Located in Albuquerque, the participating drop-in center is Youth In Transition. The center will serve as a recruiting facility for homeless youth. Some of these youth were “pushed-out” of the home (forced to leave their home), while others may have left their home without their parent’s permission to escape physical/sexual abuse or high levels of family conflict.

“There are lots of inherent problems working with street youth that many therapists and researchers struggle with. There is no public policy guiding how these youth should be served. And, these youth don’t have a strong voice in our society,” said Slesnick. “We’ll give each youth a baseline assessment test to evaluate criminal history, alcohol and drug abuse, HIV risk, negative affect, social stability and other related problem behaviors so we can assess how treatment affected each of these areas. The goal is develop an effective treatment for these youth, specifically.”

Project TEAM will also utilize adult mentors for two years. The mentors will meet with street youth weekly for 12 weeks during the treatment period to help provide a positive experience with a trusted adult.

“Many of these youth do not trust adults,” said Slesnick. “Through the use of mentors, we hope they regain some of that trust.”
Slesnick’s interest in homeless and runaway youth, and to become a voice for troubled youth, started in graduate school where her emphasis was on family relationships, adolescent depression and substance abuse. She provided treatment to several families where the youth had run away from home in her postdoctoral appointment.

“These families and youth had different struggles from other youth and families and were particularly pained,” Slesnick said. “I became interested and searched the research literature on treatment of runaway youth and families. I was astonished to discover a great void in the literature on this population. I found no studies evaluating treatment with these youth and families. This led to my first grant application whose goal was to evaluate a family-based treatment for runaway youth and develop a treatment manual for other providers.”

Since that first grant, Slesnick and her co-investigators have received funding for three additional grant projects, each exploring treatments for runaway and homeless youth.

For more information on Projects STAR or TEAM, or for anyone interested in becoming an adult mentor and working with street youth, call Isela Roeder, program manager, at (505) 768-0145.

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