Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Conclusions


A typology of homeless families should build on the existing knowledge. Most homeless families are experiencing severe poverty and that subsidized housing is enough in the majority of instances to help them gain a stable home. There are smaller groups for whom this does not seem to work, presumably because other environmental, personal, or situational factors. There may be environmental barriers to housing subsidies and other services.  

Aside from their extreme poverty, homeless families belong to a heterogeneous population. They fall into three groups: newly and recently homeless, recurrently homeless, and chronically homeless. The first group is the largest and the third is much smaller. Personal factors  associated with family homelessness are loss of employment, welfare support, spouse or partner; eviction from current living quarters; recent violence; physical or sexual abuse in childhood and/or foster care or lack of stable housing during developmental phases; belonging to African American or Hispanic minorities; pregnancy; hospitalization; and substance abuse, medical problems as well as mental disabilities.  At the individual or family level, these findings are consistent with a theory that homelessness is associated with severe poverty, lack of access to housing, and exposure to traumatic events, some of which go back to childhood.  At the population level, the theory that homelessness is associated with a gap between the number of low-income families and the availability of low-income housing units (the homelessness equation) is well suited to the facts.

There is evidence that, while children can be quite resilient, homelessness provides them with serious hazards shared, at least in part, with children experiencing severe poverty in their home (Buckner, 2005). Such hazards include hunger, poor physical health, poor access to health care, disrupted education, barriers to home work; exposure to bias associated with stigma; insults to self-image and to parental image; exposure to violence, psychological abuse; drug abuse; separation from family members; separation from parents and foster care placement; and lack of a stable, secure home during development. Research on children who are homeless with their families is far less advanced than research on homeless youth.

Research on homelessness, in general, and on homeless family typologies in particular, should be guided by the context in which research policies are developed. In the historical context of the 1980s, the problem was focused on single homeless persons and on mental disorder (“the homeless mentally ill”) and abuse of various substances. Thus, at the Federal level, the problem was “owned” by mental health and substance abuse agencies, and those agencies funded the waves of research in the 1980s and 1990s, and the characteristics of homeless persons were targeted. The rapid increase in the number of adults and children that are homeless as a family group led to additional research funded by private foundations and local government, as well as demonstration projects to address such homelessness. The results refocused the problem on housing and, therefore, housing subsidies, and on the developmental damage done by unstable housing situations, poverty, and sexual or physical abuse. The simplistic view that treating mental disorder or substance abuse would solve the homelessness problem is no longer tenable. Rather, the solution has to be systemic, a point that is reflected in the organization of the Federal U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. In the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the problem now requires planning and evaluation of the role of HHS’s various social and health divisions, as well as a concerted collaborative effort involving the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

In this new context, typologies of homeless families must include exogenous (housing environment, housing and health/human services access), endogenous (characteristics and history of homeless families and their members), and situational (fit between homeless families’ needs and accessible environmental resources) components. A systematic approach to developing a typology should take into account their practical value for: (1) preventing homelessness; (2) securing a home for homeless families; (3) preventing recurrence of homelessness; (4) providing human and health services to meet the needs of homeless families and their members; and (5) offsetting the harmful developmental effects of homelessness on children.

The typologies could be used to assign homeless families or children to groups that would be relatively homogeneous with regard to policy development at Federal and local governmental levels, and service provision at the provider level.  At the governmental levels, the prevalence estimates and distribution of the population of homeless families among the various groups would guide the development of programs among and between agencies. At the provider level, the classification of the client families among the classification categories would guide various providers in the selection of interventions at various stages in the process of experiencing and responding to homelessness: imminent eviction by landlord or flight from abusive home, presentation to initial service agency, assignment to initial shelter, interaction with welfare, employment and other agencies, provision of needed personal services to adults and children, temporary housing, with or without support, and finally, permanent housing.

A simple heuristic device that could be used to guide further work in typology development is shown below in terms of a four-celled model:

  Environment with
Facilitators Barriers
Service Needs of Families: Minor    

Differing typologies within this general format might be applied to housing, health and human services, and education of children.  Detailed typologies might be developed within each dimension (i.e., service needs based on endogenous variables, environmental context based on exogenous).  Ultimately, the interaction between endogenous and exogenous factors needs to be investigated, to the extent that the distribution and prevalence of service need subtypes is likely to vary with the environmental context, with environments having a high density of barriers (e.g., high unemployment, lack of services, poor housing stock) more likely to include families with minor or moderate service needs, whereas facilitating environments (e.g., ample services, low unemployment, adequate low income housing) more likely to include families with major service needs.

Homeless individuals or families are often classified as being newly homeless, on the one hand, or recurrently or chronically homeless, on the other hand.  Sometimes a third group of recurrent (but not chronic) cases is included.  The smaller, chronic group utilizes a disproportionate amount of shelter and other services. It has been proposed (and introduced as policy to end homelessness) that efforts be targeted to this small chronic group. This has been countered by advocates of homeless families who point to the significant needs of the much larger group of new and recurrent homeless families.

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