Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Contextual and Policy-related Factors


Across communities at any given moment, the extent of structural imbalance between the supply of affordable housing and its demand will vary with some areas having greater disequilibrium between the supply of housing and demand than others. Likewise, within any given community over time, the degree of structural imbalance is not static but in a state of flux. For instance, Massachusetts, like many other regions of the United States, has had a shortage of affordable housing for many years and this structural imbalance between supply and demand has worsened over the past 10 years. Evidence of this has been increased length of time on waiting lists for eligible households to receive Section 8 housing assistance and longer average duration of shelter stays before families can secure permanent housing (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2001). Interestingly, it is quite possible that changes in this structural imbalance, for better or for worse, may have ramifications for what researchers uncover at the individual-level among homeless individuals and families. How could this be so?

In understanding the root causes of homelessness, it is important to differentiate between a structural imbalance in the supply and demand for housing, which is the fundamental cause of homelessness, from individual-level vulnerability factors. As a structural imbalance emerges within a locale, such that there is a shortage of affordable housing, it is those who are least able to “compete” who are first to become homeless. Such persons may have multiple vulnerability factors so that, compared to a broader group of persons at risk, they are the least competitive (Buckner, 1991; Buckner, Bassuk, and Zima, 1993; Shinn, 1992). For instance, among families, where caring for children in and of itself leaves adults more vulnerable to homelessness, this could include having health, mental health, or substance use problems as additional risk factors. As the structural imbalance progresses, those who become homeless next will have fewer vulnerabilities than the earliest victims. In other words, when a community begins to encounter a lack of affordable housing appropriate for families, it will be the most vulnerable families who become homeless first. If the problem worsens over time, those families who become homeless thereafter will increasingly look less susceptible compared to the first entrants into homelessness.

The implication this has for homelessness research is that, all other things being equal, in a gradually worsening housing market, early studies may reveal greater problems among shelter residents (adults and children) than do later studies. The rationale being that a gradually tightening housing market “selects” out those families first with the most vulnerabilities (i.e., least ability to compete successfully for housing) followed by families with fewer vulnerabilities. Over time, early disparities between homeless and low-income housed families would tend to lessen. Hence, a comparative study conducted shortly after a structural imbalance in the supply and demand for housing emerges may end up seeing starker differences between the homeless and housed group (e.g., more ADM disorders with the mother). However, these may be factors that entered into the selection process for which families became homeless. If these factors also have a role in influencing a children’s mental health (or other aspect of child functioning) then it may appear as though housing status is the reason for heightened problems among children, when in fact the association is not a causal one. For this reason, it is important to measure other factors that can influence a child’s mental health (or other relevant outcome) so as to make a clearer determination about the specific contribution of housing status (i.e., homelessness) to such outcomes.

Housing assistance policy is another area that could change the complexion of sheltered homeless families over time. If housing policy is such that being homeless reduces a family’s wait for a Section 8 housing certificate/voucher or some other form of housing assistance, then some families may decide it is worth it in the long run to seek admittance to a family shelter. A situation then arises where homelessness is not something that is avoided by all. Should a modest proportion of families in shelter be there as a matter of “choice” rather than necessity, a comparison of homeless to low-income housed families would most likely reveal fewer differences than if all families in shelter were in shelter unwillingly.14

Conceivably, some of these contextual and/or housing policy-related factors could have played a role in accounting for different results between Ellen Bassuk’s and colleagues study of homeless and housed families in Boston during the 1980s (Bassuk and Rosenberg, 1988; Bassuk and Rosenberg, 1990) and a similar but more comprehensive investigation of homeless and housed mothers in Worcester that she led 8 or so years later (Bassuk, Weinreb, Buckner, Browne, Salomon, and Bassuk, 1996; Bassuk, Buckner, Weinreb, Dawson, Browne, and Perloff, 1997; Bassuk, Buckner, Bassuk, and Perloff, 1998). In the earlier study, homeless mothers had greater difficulties than a comparison group of low-income mothers on a range of factors, including history of abuse in childhood and adulthood, greater psychiatric problems, and less supportive social networks (Bassuk and Rosenberg, 1998). In contrast, in the Worcester study, the two groups were quite similar across many different measures, including abuse histories, alcohol, drug, and mental health problems, health conditions, and social networks. In fact, the two groups were similar enough on so many different dimensions, especially histories of violent victimization and mental health problems, that it was almost as if they had been sampled from the same population. Conceivably, this contrast in study findings between Boston in the 1980s and Worcester in the 1990s is partly explained by a gradual worsening of the housing market in Massachusetts. Or perhaps housing policy shifted appreciably such that more low-income families were entering shelter to accelerate receiving housing assistance. Either way, what was observed in mothers in each of the two studies likely related to what was assessed in their children. In other words, the greater differences between homeless and housed children in the Boston study as reported by Bassuk and Rosenberg (1990) as compared to the Worcester study (Bassuk et al., 1997; Buckner and Bassuk, 1997; Garcia Coll et al., 1998; Buckner et al., 1997) could have partly been a function of there being more troubled families in the Boston homeless sample than the Worcester homeless sample.

While the above discussion is somewhat speculative, there are compelling reasons to warrant researchers taking a step back and evaluating possible contextual and/or policy-related factors that may play a role in study findings of homeless individuals and families. This is not to argue that differences in contextual or policy factors explain all the inconsistencies seen across the different investigations of homeless children (and families), but that they could account for some portion of the variability in results.

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