Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Factors Considered for Inclusion in a Homeless Families Typology

10/01/2007

First, the panelists thought it was important to know how large a typology is needed-that is, how many variables should be considered? The caution was to keep it simple and focus on variables that provide the most differentiation. A good typology should have practical utility, be easy to derive from the data, and have the ability to predict future behaviors. A typology also should be able to facilitate conversation and command a common language among service providers, researchers, and policymakers.

There was a major emphasis on discussing the importance of considering the goals of the typology in determining the factors to be included. A key point made was that the factors that block a family from exiting homelessness or getting back into housing (e.g., bad credit, criminal record) are different from factors that predict becoming homeless or losing housing (e.g., problems with landlords; drugs). Thus, different ways of framing the problem can lead to different goal formation.

Other key factors discussed for inclusion revolved around ordering families according to levels of risk: different gradients of risk of homelessness; risk to parent/child well-being (physical risk, domestic violence, housing conditions); and probability of a quick exit (some might need a single day of shelter). This system would allow for teasing apart families in desperate need from those with moderate needs.

A major area of discussion was the interaction between family and environment and the need to overlay any family typology with an understanding of the local context (domestic violence, neighborhood, social stratification, and market). It is important to focus on the interaction and not solely the environment, as individual characteristics contribute to different personal vulnerabilities and help explain why some families experience homelessness and others in similar environments do not.

At the individual level, it is important to understand whether a family is experiencing homelessness for the first time or experiencing repeated homelessness. Routes into homelessness were also identified as a key area of differentiation. Families report different reasons for leaving housing, including economic reasons, abuse, poor health, or mental health problems. Violence is also an important factor for inclusion at the individual level. Furthermore, it is important to be sensitive to how the population views their own problems. Women in a domestic violence shelter might think violence prevention is their primary concern, for example, and not necessarily consider themselves homeless.

Even though most of the Expert Panel discussion revolved around factors needed for inclusion, some factors were also identified as unnecessary. Dr. Babor reminded the group not to include sociodemographic variables just because they are available unless they help with meaningful differentiation. Typologies should have practical utility, and extraneous variables will only hinder their effectiveness.

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