Our analytic approach is designed to measure the multiplicity of individual and structural factors that may be associated with increased risk of becoming homeless, while also measuring those characteristics thought to protect families from this unfortunate hardship. The design of the Fragile Families Study allows us to estimate these effects on the actual experiences of at risk families. As a result, we are able to overcome the limitations of prior research that frequently omits structural factors because these studies are conducted in a single city, focuses only on those families that have been homeless without an adequate comparison group, or lacks potentially important individual and household characteristics on health, drug use, domestic violence, and informal social support.
Our approach provides the kind of analysis needed to establish the relative importance of those dimensions thought to shape homeless spells among low-income families. In so doing, it provides the kind of information that can help untangle the complex matrix of factors thought to influence family homelessness. We believe this type of analysis can help policy makers prioritize strategies that can have the greatest effect on reducing the number of families living in shelters or on the street.
Our analysis demonstrates the importance of both individual and structural factors. In particular, poor health, domestic violence, and residential mobility significantly increase the likelihood of homelessness even when controlling for city-level variation in housing affordability, local economic conditions, climate, shelter availability, and anti-loitering laws. Moreover, high unemployment, lack of affordable housing, shelter availability, and anti-loitering laws all significantly increase the odds of a family experiencing a homeless spell independent of individual- and household-level socio-demographic characteristics.
It is important to note that a number of factors thought to be important in explaining family homelessness did not help explain why some families in the Fragile Families Study became homeless. In particular, race, educational attainment, labor force participation, out of wedlock birth, welfare receipt, and drug use were not associated with homeless spells. Similarly, housing vacancy rates and climate had little or no effect. At risk families in our analysis do experience lower rates of homelessness because of protective factors. We observed small but statistically significant effects for informal familial social support, as well as some benefits of reduced homelessness as a result of receiving low-income housing subsidies.
Before concluding, it is important to highlight several limitations in our analysis. First, our measure of homelessness is somewhat crude and does not capture variation in the severity of homelessness spells. Sleeping in a homeless shelter for a few nights is substantially different from sleeping on the street for months; however, the Fragile Families Study is unable to distinguish the severity of homelessness spells or the number of homelessness spells. Second, the number of homeless families in the sub-samples is large enough to generate reliable estimators, but limits our ability to establish statistically significant coefficients. The robustness of our findings would likely improve with a larger sample of homeless families. Third, our study is restricted to the twenty cities in the Fragile Families Study and it is unclear whether our findings can be generalized beyond these places. This external validity threat may be overstated given the mix of cities by region, size, and level of deprivation; however, it is important that these results not be interpreted beyond the study sample. Forth, the assumed causal direction between our dependent and independent variables, i.e., simultaneity, may be reversed. For instance, we observed a strong positive relationship between a city’s unemployment rate and the likelihood of a respondent reporting a homeless spell. This effect is observed at the 3 year interview but not at the one year interview and may indicate high-unemployment in a city causes family homelessness but it is also possible that homelessness causes higher unemployment rates in a city. Unfortunately, this problem can only be addressed though the longitudinal design of the Fragile Families Study and the use of future waves of data collection.
While future research will have to overcome these limitations, we believe our analytic approach is an innovative strategy for the study of family homelessness (and homelessness in general), and provides a framework for improving what we know about the problem of family homelessness. It provides a more coherent and comprehensive approach to the study of this complex social problem, while providing policy makers with the type of knowledge and understanding they need to craft effective interventions designed to keep at risk families from becoming homeless.