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Families, usually defined as one or more adults accompanied by one or more children under eighteen, constitute an important subset of homeless people. The reasons for homelessness and the resources available to prevent or end it are different for families than for single adults or unaccompanied adolescents. On the other hand, distinctions between homeless families and homeless individuals also reflect the passage of time and the actions of service systems.
Thus, in understanding homeless families, it is important to understand their characteristics as well as the systems that shape them.
Extent Of Family Homelessness
One way to estimate the extent of family homelessness is to determine the percentage of homeless people who are members of homeless families. The 2002 U.S. Conference of Mayors report on homelessness in twenty-five large cities concluded that 41 percent of those who were homeless on any given night were members of homeless families. But because the report relied largely on counting people in shelters and because families are more likely than single individuals to seek shelter, this proportion was probably an overestimate. The Urban Institute’s National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC), which included a broader and more representative sample of clients of sixteen types of homeless assistance programs in seventy-six geographical areas, provides better data. It found that 34 percent of homeless service users in 1996 were members of homeless families: 23 percent were children and 11 percent were their parents. This survey also noted that families remained homeless for shorter periods and were less likely to have several episodes of homelessness than single adults. Because the turnover of families was more rapid than the turnover of single adults, it was therefore only logical that the proportion of families who were homeless over the course of the year would be larger than the proportion of people who were homeless on any given night. The sample did not include families or individuals who did not access services and were more likely to be chronically homeless.
Another way of measuring the extent of family homelessness is to determine the proportion of poor families who become homeless. Psychologist Dennis Culhane and his colleagues investigated this in Philadelphia and New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s by examining shelter records. They found that 10.5 percent of poor families and 13.6 percent of poor children had stayed in shelters during a three-year period in Philadelphia; in New York the percentages were 15.5 percent of poor families and 15.9 percent of poor children over five years. Sociologist Bruce Link and his colleagues, using data from a national telephone survey, found that 7.4 percent of adults in households with phones had been homeless (sleeping in places such as shelters, abandoned buildings, and bus and train stations) over their lifetimes. The comparable figure for those who had ever received public assistance was 19.8 percent. If the definition of homelessness was expanded to include doubling up, 31.2 percent of people who received public assistance had been homeless. Thus it is clear that homelessness is a common experience for poor families.
Numbers based on people who are sheltered along with their families underestimate the extent to which individual family members experience homelessness. The NSHAPC reported that 60 percent of all homeless women in 1996 had children below age eighteen, but only 65 percent of those women lived with at least one child; 41 percent of all homeless men had minor children, but only 7 percent lived with a child. These numbers are consistent with other studies. The extent to which separations are caused by service systems is unknown. According to the 2002 U.S. Conference of Mayors report, in 40 percent of cities in 2002, families sometimes had to break up to be sheltered, primarily because many family shelters excluded fathers and teenage boys.
Several studies have also found that mothers in family shelters have children living elsewhere. Psychologist Kirsten Cowal and her colleagues in New York found that five years after entering a shelter, 44 percent of a representative sample of mothers had become separated from one or more of their children (compared to 8 percent of poor mothers in housed families). A majority of the separated children lived with relatives, although a substantial minority were in foster care. Among both homeless families and the housed comparison group, three factors predicted separations: maternal drug dependence, domestic violence, and institutionalization, most often for substance abuse treatment. But at any level of risk, homeless families were far more likely to become separated from children than housed families, so that a homeless mother with no risk factors was as likely as a housed family with both drug dependence and domestic violence to become separated from a child. Because of family separations, what we know about homeless families pertains only to families who manage to maintain themselves as family units.
Characteristics Of Homeless Families
Homeless families are very poor. Families with more resources might become homeless briefly, as a result of a fire or other disaster, but are likely to be quickly rehoused. Thus it makes sense to compare families who are homeless to single homeless individuals and to poor families who remain housed. For the first comparison, the NSHAPC is the best source.
There are a number of studies that compare homeless families to families receiving public assistance or living in poor neighborhoods. In many respects, homeless families are more similar to other poor families than to homeless single adults.
Compared to homeless single adults, adults in homeless families are more likely to be female (23 percent versus 84 percent, according to the NSHAPC). They are also substantially younger, typically averaging between twenty-five and thirty, than homeless single adults and adults in other poor families. Adults in homeless families, which have an average of two children, are more likely than homeless single adults to be married (23 percent vs. 7 percent, according to the NSHAPC). Poor families generally are likely to be headed by women, but the relative number of homeless and poor families that are headed by married couples depends greatly on whether the homeless families are recruited from shelters that exclude men.
Homeless families are more likely than poor families generally, and substantially more likely than the general population, to be members of minority groups, especially African-American. This is also true of homeless single adults. For example, according to the NSHAPC, 62 percent of families and 59 percent of single adults, compared with 24 percent of the general population, were members of a minority group.
Adults in homeless families and other poor families have low levels of educational attainment and minimal work histories, but typically do not differ from each other. High school graduation rates for mothers in homeless families range from 35 percent to 58 percent. The graduation rates for these women are lower than for homeless single adults (47 percent versus 63 percent according to the NSHAPC). Incomes are slightly higher in homeless families than for homeless single adults, because families have greater access to means-tested benefit programs such as welfare and more help from relatives and friends.
Nonetheless, the median income for a homeless family in 1996, according to the NSHAPC, was only $418 per month, or 41 percent of the poverty line for a family of three.
Stresses in the Lives of Homeless Parents
Homeless parents are severely stressed. Psychiatrist Ellen Bassuk and her colleagues in the Worcester Family Research Project (WFRP) found that homeless mothers faced multiple stressful events in three main areas: interpersonal, child-related, and medical and emotional. In the WFRP, a case-control longitudinal study conducted from 1992 to 1996, more than two-thirds of both homeless and housed mothers described severe interpersonal conflicts with significant others, including abusive relationships (see next section). As parents living in extreme poverty, their ability to take care of their children while working was frequently compromised by the lack of child-care vouchers, child support, jobs that paid livable wages, and flexible job hours. As described above, many parents were also coping with the out-of-home placement of a child. Pregnancy or the recent birth of a child placed poor women at higher risk for becoming homeless. Further complicating their situation was that many homeless children had high rates of medical hospitalization as well as significant emotional and medical problems.
Trauma, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Problems
One of the major stresses in the lives of homeless mothers and mothers in other poor families is interpersonal and random violence. Many suffer from traumatic childhood experiences, such as physical and sexual abuse, and therefore may not be able to establish secure relationships during critical developmental years. This may explain why some of these women have difficulty forming and maintaining supportive relationships as adults. In the Worcester study, only 8.4 percent of homeless mothers and 18.2 percent of housed mothers had not experienced at least one form of severe violence during their lifetime. A majority of both groups had been severely physically assaulted as children and more than 40 percent had been sexually molested at least one time before adulthood. As adults, nearly two-thirds of the entire sample had been severely assaulted by an intimate partner. Although largely unrecognized, many of the mental health and medical needs of poor women are directly associated with violence and trauma.
In the Worcester study (but not in the New York study described below), interpersonal violence, especially during childhood, was closely associated with a woman’s ability to remain rehoused after an episode of homelessness. Mothers who had been homeless more than once had had higher rates of childhood sexual abuse and random violence than those who had been homeless only once. First-time homeless mothers who were in violent domestic relationships when they were rehoused were more likely to become homeless again.
Not surprisingly, given their experience of extreme poverty, multiple stresses, and severe violence, poor women, including homeless women, suffer from an array of emotional problems. The lifetime rates of mental health problems among homeless mothers, such as major depression, anxiety disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are similar to the rates of other poor mothers, but considerably higher than rates in the general female population, as reported in the National Comorbidity Survey. Compared to the general population, very poor homeless and housed mothers had twice the rate of depression, twice the rate of PTSD, and twice the rate of substance abuse. Psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, were not more common among homeless mothers than among the general population. Compared to poor housed mothers, significantly more homeless mothers had been hospitalized for emotional or substance use problems.
The proportion of adults in homeless families who suffer from mental health, alcohol, or drug problems depends on how these problems are defined and the period over which problems are assessed. For example, the NSHAPC counted people who attend Alcoholics Anonymous (or met a variety of other criteria) as having a current alcohol problem, whether or not they had had a drink recently.
Thus, 18 percent of adults in homeless families were classified as having an alcohol problem in the past month whereas only 11 percent reported having drunk alcohol three times within any week in the past month. Using careful diagnostic interviews, Bassuk and her colleagues found that 2.7 percent of homeless mothers met diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence in the past month. These rates may be underestimated given that shelters excluded active substance users. Figures for the current drug problems of poor and homeless women (20 percent of adults in families based on an expansive definition in the NSHAPC; 3.6 percent based on diagnostic interviews in the Worcester study) are equally disparate. Lifetime rates of substance use problems in both groups were far higher in both studies—with 41 percent of homeless mothers and 34.7 percent of poor housed mothers in Worcester reporting alcohol or drug dependence. Whatever the definition or period used, studies consistently find that mothers in homeless families have fewer substance problems than single homeless adults (who are mostly male), but more than mothers in poor families and more than women in the general population. The NSHAPC found comparable levels of mental
health problems among homeless families and homeless single adults, although the single adults were more likely to have been hospitalized. However, this study did not distinguish among different types of mental health problems, or between problems that are more prevalent for women and for men.
Homeless single men and women are more likely than mothers in homeless families to have schizophrenia. Taking alcohol, drug, and mental health problems together, the National Survey found that 49 percent of adults in homeless families had had some problem in the current month compared to 69 percent of homeless single adults. In the Worcester study, using tighter definitions, 35 percent of homeless mothers, compared to 33 percent of housed low-income mothers, had had current problems. Again, although the specific numbers depend on definitions, the finding that mothers in homeless families are more like other poor mothers than like homeless single adults is consistent with other studies.
Homeless mothers have many acute and chronic medical problems—far more than the general population of women aged twenty-five to thirty-four. In the Worcester study, homeless mothers had significantly higher rates of asthma, anemia, chronic bronchitis, and ulcers.
Characteristics of Children in Homeless Families
Children in homeless families are very different from unaccompanied homeless adolescents. Their parents are young and so are they, with 42 percent in the National Survey below school age. The most lasting legacy of homelessness for many children may be separation from their families, as described above. In the New York study, less than a quarter of separated children had been returned to their families five years after the family first entered a shelter. Children who remain in homeless families may have fewer problems than those who leave. Psychologist Ann Masten has described a “continuum of risk” in which homeless children are worse off than other poor children (although often not significantly so), and poor children are worse off than middle-class children, along a variety of dimensions. Compared to other poor children, children in shelters may experience more health problems. They report somewhat more psychological distress (although typically not higher rates of diagnosable mental disorders). Despite federal legislation (the McKinney Act) that entitles homeless children to remain in their previous schools, many change schools frequently as their families move around and in and out of shelters. They are frequently absent and often need to repeat a grade.
Causes Of Family Homelessness
Experts generally agree that the structural causes of homelessness are poverty and a lack of affordable housing, with individual vulnerabilities playing an important role in determining which poor people are unable to secure or maintain access to housing. Families compete in the same housing market as single individuals, although they typically require at least a two-bedroom unit. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has traditionally maintained that housing is affordable if it costs no more than 30 percent of income. The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that, by this standard, a minimum-wage worker would have needed to work from 66 hours per week (in Puerto Rico) to 146 hours per week (in New Jersey) to afford the fair-market rent (as calculated by HUD) for a two-bedroom apartment in 2002. HUD reported that 33 percent of families with incomes below half of the median income in their area had worse-case housing needs in 1997—that is, they were renters without subsidies who paid more than half their income for housing and utilities or lived in severely substandard housing.
The importance of housing in understanding which families become homeless is demonstrated in a New York City study by Psychologist Marybeth Shinn and her colleagues in which families requesting shelter were compared to families from the public assistance caseload. None of the families had been homeless previously, so characteristics that might be the consequences of shelter stays could not be confused with characteristics that might cause them. Mothers in the families requesting shelter were younger than those in housed families, more likely to be African-American, and much more likely to be pregnant or have a newborn, factors that may have affected both housing needs and the ability to generate income. They were also far more likely to be doubled up, to have moved recently, and to live in overcrowded dwellings, and far less likely to have housing subsidies. Together, these housing and demographic factors accurately predicted 65 percent of families who would become homeless (but the same factors wrongly predicted that 10 percent of housed families would be homeless). Other factors that together improved prediction to 66 percent were marriage (heads of homeless families were more likely to be married), growing up in a family on welfare, experiencing domestic violence, and early childhood abuse or separation from the family of origin. Factors that did not add any predictive power included education, work history, prior teen pregnancy, mental illness, substance abuse, health problems, history of incarceration, and social networks.
Five years later, only one factor made an important contribution to understanding which formerly homeless families would be stably housed in their own apartments for at least a year without a move.
This was whether or not the family had received some form of subsidized housing. Among families that did, 80 percent met this definition of stability, the identical proportion as for public assistance recipients generally. Among those who did not, only 18 percent were stable. Unlike the findings in Worcester, neither early childhood experiences of abuse or out-of-home placement, adult experiences of domestic violence, nor any other factors that influenced seeking shelter affected later stability. Of all other factors measured, only age additionally contributed to stability, and the effect was quite small. Families in this study received no special services.
Psychologist Debra Rog and her colleagues, in a six-city study conducted in the early 1990s, found that 86 percent of families with multiple problems who had been provided with both Section 8 certificates (which subsidize housing) and services were still in the same Section 8 housing after eighteen months. No differences were found across cities or service models. These studies suggest the centrality of housing resources to ending family homelessness.
Some observers, such as sociologist Christopher Jencks, have argued that declines in marriage rates are a central cause of family homelessness. Single parenthood may well contribute to poverty, and hence to making housing less affordable. But once families are poor, marriage or cohabitation does not seem to protect them against homelessness. Studies that find higher rates of single parenthood among homeless families than among other poor families tend to have been conducted in shelter systems that sometimes exclude men.
Solutions To Family Homelessness
Solutions to family homelessness can be divided into efforts at preventing and ending homelessness, making homelessness less disruptive to children and families, and improving the quality of life for families who become homeless. With respect to preventing and ending homelessness, research suggests that creating more affordable housing is critical. This can be done with direct housing subsidies and subsidies or tax breaks for the development of affordable housing, or with efforts to raise wage rates and benefits from government transfer programs at the bottom of the income distribution. Both strategies are important. Because in some cities homeless families come disproportionately from specific neighborhoods (not simply poor neighborhoods), and because homelessness is associated with life stage (youth, having a new child), it may be worth targeting prevention efforts to young families in high-risk neighborhoods. Greater efforts to eliminate persistent discrimination in housing might lower rates of homelessness for African-American families.
To make homelessness less disruptive to families, temporary shelter should be a right. The U.S. Conference of Mayors reported in 2002 that 60 percent of cities in their survey sometimes turned families away for lack of space. Families, especially families with young children or members who are sick, should not be required to leave shelters during the day, as they were in 32 percent of cities. Providers should try to house entire families together and to avoid arbitrary limits on the length of stay. To avoid disruptions in schooling and social networks, temporary shelters should be located near the neighborhood of origin, the neighborhood in which families will be rehoused, or both.
Shelters are difficult places in which to rear children. Shelter rules frequently usurp parental authority, and establishing routines for meals or homework can be difficult in crowded and shared facilities. To minimize the disruptions associated with shelters, families should be moved to permanent housing as quickly as possible. Social service personnel should consider the long-term interests of children as well as their immediate circumstances in determining whether they need to be removed from a family, and they should make provisions for reuniting families. For example, separated mothers should be given priority access to apartments large enough to accommodate all their children if reunification is desired.
Many services may be important to a family’s quality of life, including health services, help with employment, quality child care and after-school programs, and counseling for mental health problems. Substance abuse programs should accommodate children, so that mothers do not have to choose between getting treatment and keeping their children. An important question is whether services should be based in shelters and transitional housing programs, or whether they should be sited in poor communities, where they would be more widely available. Shelters and housing programs might then link homeless families with community-based services that offer more continuity. Some evidence suggesting the value of community-based services comes from a study in New York, which has excellent health services in shelters. Nevertheless, five years after entering shelters, formerly homeless families in New York were less likely than other poor families to have a regular source of medical care. A small number of families may need ongoing supportive housing where services are more intensive and coordinated.
Many of these services have the primary purpose of undoing the damage caused by homelessness. If homelessness can be prevented, by raising the incomes of poor families and providing more affordable housing, other specialized services will be less necessary. Thus, prevention should be the primary goal.
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