Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Age, Marital Status, Family Composition, and Ethnicity

10/01/2007

The typical profile of a homeless family is one headed by a single woman in her late 20s with approximately two children, one or both under 6 years of age (Bassuk et al., 1996; Burt et al., 1999; LaVesser, Smith, and Bradford, 1997; Lowin, Demirel, Estee, and Schreinder 2001; Rog, McCombs-Thornton, Gilbert-Mongelli, Brito, and Holupka, 1995b; SAMHSA Homeless Families Project, 2004; Shinn, Knickman, and Weitzman, 1991). Despite the fact that homeless families are predominately headed by women, adults in homeless families are more likely to be married than individual homeless adults (23% vs. 7% in the NSHAPC survey [Burt et al., 1999]) and also more likely than adults in other poor families to be married at the point of shelter entry (Shinn et al., 1998). In fact, Shinn and her colleagues found that being married or living with a partner increased the risk of requesting shelter. The relative proportion of homeless families who are married in a particular study depends greatly on whether the homeless families are recruited from shelters that exclude men. In 2003, shelters in 57 percent of the cities involved in the U.S. Conference of Mayors (2005) report indicated that families could not always be sheltered together primarily because many family shelters excluded men and adolescent boys.

Not only are homeless families overwhelmingly households headed by women, but they are disproportionately families with young (preschool) children. The risk for homelessness is highest—and higher than the general population rate—among children under the age of 6. Furthermore, the risk increases for younger children, with the highest rate of risk among children under the age of 1 (infants), of whom approximately 4.2 percent were homeless in 1995 (Culhane and Metraux, 1999).

Pregnancy is also a risk factor for homelessness (Shinn et al., 1998). In a comparison of homeless public assistance families in New York with a sample of housed families on public assistance, 35 percent of the homeless women were pregnant at the time of the study and 26 percent had given birth in the past year, while 6 percent of the housed group were pregnant and 11 percent had given birth recently (Weitzman, 1989).

Homeless families are more likely than poor families, and both are substantially more likely than the general population, to be members of minority groups, especially African Americans (Lowin et al., 2001; Rossi, Wright, Fischer, and Willis, 1987; Susser, Lin, and Conover, 1991; Whaley, 2002). This is also true of homeless single adults. For example, in the NSHAPC, 62 percent of families and 59 percent of single adults, compared with 24 percent of the general population, were members of minority groups (Burt et al., 1999). However, the particular minority groups represented vary from city to city. Their race and ethnicity reflect the composition of the city in which they reside, with minority groups invariably disproportionately represented (Breakey, et al. 1989; d’Ercole and Struening, 1990; Rog, McCombs-Thornton, Gilbert-Mongelli, Brito, and Holupka, 1995b; Shinn et al., 1991; Lowin et al., 2001). The rates of risk are again highest among young children. For example, an annual rate of homelessness in New York City among poor African American children under the age of 5 was 15 percent in 1990 and 16 percent in 1995 (Culhane and Metraux, 1999).

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