Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Education-related Outcomes

10/01/2007

When the crisis of family homelessness emerged in the 1980s, most school systems were unprepared to deal with the complex needs of homeless children. Many homeless children were denied access to education with school districts claiming that families living in shelter did not meet permanent residency requirements and, therefore, were not eligible for enrollment (Rafferty, 1995). The most frequent impediments to adequate education for homeless children were residency, guardianship, immunization requirements, availability of records, and transportation to and from school (Stronge, 1992). It is not difficult to imagine that if homelessness causes children to miss school, such absence will likely be detrimental to their academic performance.

Part of The Stewart B. McKinney Homelessness Assistance Act, which Congress passed in 1987, was the establishment of the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program to ensure that homeless children had the same access to public education as all other children. Since then, the EHCY program has provided formula grants to state educational agencies to review and revise policies that may act as barriers to school enrollment and attendance as well as to fund direct services such as transportation and tutoring. Anderson, Janger, and Panton (1995) conducted a national evaluation of the EHCY program and found that over 85 percent of homeless children and youth were regularly attending school, indicating a marked improvement in school access compared to pre-EHCY program attendance rates.

Studies of homeless children that were conducted prior to and shortly after the creation of the EHCY program have consistently documented disrupted school attendance and academic underperformance. For instance, Bassuk and Rubin (1987) reported that 43 percent of students living in Massachusetts shelters had repeated a grade, 25 percent were in special classes, and 42 percent were failing or doing below-average work. Masten et al. (1993) found that 64 percent of the homeless children they surveyed in Minneapolis in 1999 had changed schools in the past year, significantly higher than the 40 percent rate experienced by housed poor children. In a separate study of 73 homeless children ages 6 to 11, Masten and colleagues determined that academic achievement scores were lower on average than would be expected among children in the general population (Masten, Sesma, Si-Asar, Lawrence, Miliotis, and Dionne, 1997).

Zima, Wells, and Freeman (1994) reported that 16 percent of their sample of school-age homeless children in Los Angeles had missed more than 3 weeks of school over the past 12 weeks. Thirty-nine percent exhibited reading delays and almost half were at or below the 10th percentile on a measure of receptive vocabulary. Zima and colleagues also found a high level of unmet need for special education evaluations (and perhaps special education programs) based on the high proportion of children with a probable behavioral disorder, learning disability, or mental retardation (Zima, Bussing, Forness, and Benjamin, 1997).

In a longitudinal study in New York City, Rafferty, Shinn, and Weitzman (2004) compared the academic achievement scores of 46 youths who had a history of homelessness with 87 housed (never homeless) adolescents at three time points during the early to mid-1990s. They found an apparent detrimental effect of homelessness on achievement scores over the short term but not 5 years later. A subtest of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Revised was equivalent between the two groups. Youths who had previously been homeless had more school mobility and grade retention than their housed peers (Rafferty et al., 2004).

Between 1990-92, Rubin, Erickson, San Agustin, Cleary, Allen, and Cohen (1996) conducted a comparative study of homelessness and poor housed children ages 6 to 11 in New York City to examine the relation among housing status, cognitive functioning, and academic achievement. Similar to other studies, they reported that homeless children had missed more days of school in the past year and were more likely to have repeated a grade compared to low-income housed children. Controlling for sociodemographic variables, Rubin et al. (1996) did not find differences between the two groups on measures of verbal and nonverbal intelligence. However, academic achievement scores (reading, spelling, math) were worse for homeless children compared to their housed counterparts, adjusting for demographic factors. Rubin et al. (1996) reported that the effect of housing status on reading achievement was mediated by the number of school changes a child had experienced in the previous 2 years, whereas housing status was linked to spelling achievement through having repeated a grade.

In contrast to some of these studies, Buckner, Bassuk, and Weinreb (2001) found no evidence of higher school absenteeism or lower academic achievement scores among homeless school age children in the Worcester study as compared to low-income housed children. Children in each group had missed an average of 6 days of school in the past year and scores on a composite measure of academic achievement were identical for both groups (92.8 with 100 the average in the general population). IQ scores were also equivalent in the two groups (92.5 for homeless children vs. 93.5 for housed youths with a score of 100 the norm). Rates of school suspension, grade retention, and special classroom placement were actually higher in the housed comparison group. The only notable difference in the “expected” direction was that homeless children had been enrolled in more schools in the past year (a median of 2 vs. 1 for housed school-age children).

It is likely that the lack of differences in the Worcester study between homeless and housed school-age children on school and education-related variables had to do with successful implementation of the EHCY program in that city. For the most part, data collection for the other investigations cited above occurred prior to the full implementation of EHCY programs in cities in which these studies were conducted. Since EHCY programs target likely mechanisms by which homelessness could adversely impact academic achievement—namely school access and school attendance—it is not surprising that subsequent studies of homeless children that took place after EHCY programs had been actively implemented (such as in Worcester) would find fewer differences between homeless and housed children on measures of school-related problems and achievement. The findings offer encouraging evidence that it may be possible to eliminate education-related problems for homeless children if barriers to accessing education can be removed.11

A summary of all the studies described above is presented in Table 1-1. The “Findings” column of this table gives a simplified synopsis of the results of the study in terms of how homeless children looked on the main outcome measure(s) compared to housed children and children in the general population. As can be seen by reading down this column, past studies that can speak to the matter of if and how homelessness has an impact on children are decidedly mixed in their findings, particularly when comparing homeless to low-income housed children.12 In virtually all instances, these two groups of low-income children look worse on various outcome measures compared to children in the “general population” (i.e., for whom the tests were normed). However, overall it appears that homelessness is associated with worse outcomes, particularly those pertaining to health and education-related measures. Study results in the areas of mental health, problem behaviors, and developmental status are somewhat less consistent, both within and across investigations. The magnitude of severity of problems found among homeless (and low-income housed) children tend to be in the mild to moderate range.

Table 1-1. Summary of published homelessness studies 1987-2004 by domain

Mental health/behavior problems

Publication Location Sample Age Outcomes Findings Comments
 

Bassuk and Rubin (1987)

 

 

Massachusetts

 

156 homeless children

 

0-18 years

 

CBCL, CDI

 

Hom > GP

 

First study to involve homeless children

 

Bassuk and Rosenberg (1990)

 

Boston

 

134 homeless children

81 housed children

 

0-18 years

 

CBCL, CDI, etc.

 

Hom > Hou > GP

 

Mostly the same homeless sample as
Bassuk and Rubin (1987)

 

Rescorla et al. (1991)

 

Philadelphia

 

83 homeless children

45 housed/clinic children

 

3-12 years

 

CBCL, etc.

 

Hom > Hou > GP

 

Homeless children much worse on CBCL than housed peers

 

Masten et al. (1993)

 

Minneapolis

 

159 homeless children

62 housed children

 

8-17 years

 

CBCL, CDI

 

Hom = Hou > GP

 

Multivariate analyses controlled for other explanatory variables

 

Zima et al. (1994)

 

 

Los Angeles

 

169 homeless children

 

6-12 years

 

CBCL, CDI

 

Hom > GP

 
 

Ziesemer et al. (1994)

 

Madison, WI

 

145 homeless children

142 housed children

 

School-age

 

CBCL-Teacher

 

Hom = Hou > GP

 

Teacher version of CBCL used, not parent version as in the other studies

 

Schteingart et al. (1994)

 

New York City

 

82 homeless children

62 housed children

 

3-5 years

 

CBCL

 

Hom = Hou > GP

 

Multivariate analyses controlled for other explanatory variables

 

Bassuk et al. (1997)

 

Worcester, MA

 

77 homeless children

90 housed children

 

2-5 years

 

CBCL

 

Hom > Hou > GP

 

Multivariate analyses. Difference between Homeless/housed on CBCL-Externalizing only

 

Buckner et al. (1999)

 

Worcester, MA

 

80 homeless children

148 housed children

 

6-17 years

 

CBCL, CDI, etc.

 

Hom > Hou > GP

 

Multivariate analyses. Difference between Homeless/housed on CBCL-Internalizing only

 

Buckner and Bassuk (1997)

 

Worcester, MA

 

41 homeless children

53 housed children

 

9-17 years

 

DISC

(DSM-III-R diagnoses)

 

Hom = Hou > GP

 

Children age 9 and older in Worcester study.

Only study to report DSM diagnoses

 

Developmental-related problems

Publication Location Sample Age Outcomes Findings Comments
 

Bassuk and Rosenberg (1990

 

Boston

 

134 homeless children

81 housed children

 

0-5 years

 

DDST

 

Hom > Hou > GP

 

DDST is a brief screening instrument

 

Wood et al. (1990)

 

 

Los Angeles

 

194 homeless children

 

0-5 years

 

DDST

 

Hom > GP

 

Housed children were not assessed

 

Garcia Coll et al. (1999)

 

Worcester, MA

 

127 homeless children 91 housed children

 

0-3 years

 

Bayley

 

Hom = Hou = GP

 

Bayley is the “gold-standard” measure of Developmental status

 

 

Health-related problems

Publication Location Sample Age Outcomes Findings Comments
 

Alperstein et al. (1987)

 

New York City

 

265 homeless children

1600 housed children

 

0-5 years

 

Miscellaneous

 

Hom > Hou> GP

 
 

Miller and Lin (1988)

 

 

King County, WA

 

158 homeless children

 

0-17 years

 

Miscellaneous

 

Hom > GP

 
 

Wood et al. (1990)

 

Los Angeles

 

194 homeless children

193 housed children

 

0-5 years

 

Miscellaneous

 

Hom > Hou > GP

 
 

Weinreb et al. (1998)

 

Worcester, MA

 

293 homeless children

334 housed children

 

0-17 years

 

Miscellaneous

 

Hom > Hou > GP

 

Multivariate analyses.

Education-related problems

Publication Location Sample Age Outcomes Findings Comments
 

Bassuk and Rubin (1987)

 

 

Massachusetts

 

156 homeless children

 

0-18 years

 

Attendance, etc.

 

Hom > GP

 
 

Rescorla et al. (1991)

 

Philadelphia

 

83 homeless children

45 housed/clinic children

 

3-12 years

 

WRAT-Reading

 

Hom > Hou > GP

 

Homeless children worse in reading achievement than housed peers

 

Masten et al. (1993)

 

Minneapolis

 

159 homeless children

62 housed children

 

8-17 years

 

Changes in school

 

Hom > Hou

 

 

 

Masten et al. (1997)

 

 

Minneapolis

 

73 homeless children

 

6-11 years

 

WIAT-S, etc.

 

Hom > GP

 

Compared to children for whom the test was normed, homeless children scored lower in achievement

 

Ziesemer et al. (1994)

 

 

Madison, WI

 

145 homeless children

142 housed children

 

School-age

 

CBCL-Teacher

 

Hom = Hou > GP

 

Ratings of academic performance using teacher version of CBCL

 

Zima et al. (1994; 1997)

 

 

Los Angeles

 

169 homeless children

 

6-12 years

 

Attendance, reading

delays, unmet need for

special ed., etc.

 

Hom > GP

 

Homeless children have elevated rates of academic problems, unmet need for special education, etc.

 

Rubin et al. (1996)

 

New York City

 

102 homeless children

178 housed children

 

6-11 years

 

WRAT-R

 

Hom > Hou > GP

 

Multivariate analyses. No differences between homeless and housed on IQ measure

 

Buckner et al. (2001)

 

Worcester, MA

 

80 homeless children

148 housed children

 

6-17 years

 

Attendance, WIAT-S,

KBIT-Non-verbal

 

Hom = Hou = GP

 

Multivariate analyses. No differences between homeless and housed on any measure, including IQ

 

Rafferty et al. (2004)

 

New York City

 

46 formerly homeless children

87 permanently housed children

 

11-17 years

 

Changes in school,

WISC-R Similarities,

Reading achievement

 

Hom > Hou

 

No differences on IQ measure

Key:
Hom = Homeless group; Hou = Low-income housed comparison group; GP = Children in the general population; “>” means “greater problems than”
CBCL = Child Behavior Checklist; CDI = Children’s Depression Inventory; DISC = Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children;
DDST = Denver Developmental Screening Test; Bayley = Bayley Scales of Infant Development;
WRAT-R = Wide Range Achievement Test – Revised; WIAT-S = Wechsler Individual Achievement Test- Screener; KBIT – Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test;
WISC-R = Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Revised.

 

The notion of a continuum of risk is a useful in describing how results tend to fall out when comparing homeless to low-income housed children as well as children in the general population. That is, compared to children in the general population, low-income housed children appear to be doing worse on most outcome measures with homeless children looking the most problematic. (In the next section a range of different factors are discussed that might account for the lack of dependable findings in studies that have compared homeless to housed children.) In addition to the table, Figure 1-1 provides a means by which to summarize both the intentions and the findings of the studies discussed in this section. It is intended as an explanatory device: The figure does not portray actual findings from any particular study and the quantitative values suggested by the lines on the y axis should not be taken literally. The figure portrays the continuum-of-risk concept mentioned by Masten et al. (1993), which is a consistent pattern of results across studies involving homeless and low-income housed children. In the figure, an “average degree of problem severity” is assigned to each of three different grouping of children: children in the general population, housed children living in poverty, and homeless children. Each group’s level of “problem severity” is apportioned to up to three different sources or risk. Children in the general population have just one source of risk (“normative stressors”), those who are from low-income families living in housing have two sources of risk (normative stressors plus “non-homeless, poverty-related” stressors) and homeless children have three sources (normative, poverty-related, and “homelessness-specific” stressors).

Figure 1-1: Continuum-of-Risk Concept

Figure 1. Continuum-of-Risk Concept. See text for explanation.

 

To interpret this graph, assume that the y axis refers to values indicative of a problem of some sort, with higher values indicating greater severity. The graph illustrated a finding that is typical across the studies reviewed earlier, namely that the degree of problem severity is highest for homeless children, followed by low-income housed children, with children in the general population (based on test norms) scoring lowest. The continuum-of-risk notion posits that those with exposure to greater risk have heightened problems, with homeless children experiencing the most risk, hence more severe problems followed by poor housed children, followed by children in the general population. An implicit assumption is that all three groups of children share some common risk factors that are not related to poverty. These are labeled problems attributable to “normative risk factors” and assigned equal values in all three groups. Children in the low-income housed and homeless groups share in common a set of “poverty-related” risk factors. These would be mostly environmental and family variables that children from more advantaged backgrounds are rarely or never exposed to. Furthermore, these poverty-related risk factors are not related to homelessness. Equal values are assigned to both the low-income housed children and homeless children, but no value to children in the general population. Lastly, a value of risk exposure is assigned to the group of homeless children that represents their exposure to risks that are “homelessness-related.” Of course, only children in the homeless group receive such exposure.

Some of the studies reviewed earlier reveal a pattern of results that match up nicely to this figure. For instance, those studies listed in Table 1-1, in which the finding “Homeless Group > Housed > General Population” seems to fit a pattern of findings consistent with the continuum-of-risk notion.13 As described earlier, a goal of many of the studies, especially those involving both homeless and housed children and multivariate statistics, was to determine whether homeless children had heightened problems; and, if so, whether these could be attributed to homelessness or if it were simply the case that homeless children got a higher dose of poverty-related risk exposure than the low-income housed group. So, for example, Buckner et al. (1999) found that homeless school-age children had more internalizing mental health problems than their low-income housed counterparts. Furthermore, through the measurement and statistical control of other risk factors (such as negative events, chronic strains, abuse history, mother’s mental health), the study determined that homelessness, per se, seemed to be playing a role in these elevated internalizing problems. Put another way, it was unlikely that this was a spurious association between housing status and internalizing problems brought about by homeless children having been exposed to more poverty-related (non-homeless) risks than the low-income housed group. This is one of the few studies that has found both an elevated problem severity in homeless children and has been able to convincingly demonstrate that this heightened degree of problem severity is likely the result of homelessness-related stressors and not non-homeless poverty-related factors.

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