Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Family Separations and Influence on Family Composition


One of the unfortunate experiences for a significant portion of homeless families is the separation of a child from the family, either temporarily or permanently (Cowal, Shinn, Weitzman, Stojanovic, and Labay, 2002; Hoffman and Rosenheck, 2001). The NSHAPC reported that 60 percent of all homeless women in 1996 had children below 18 years, but only 65 percent of those women lived with any of their children (and often not all of their children); similarly, 41 percent of all homeless men had minor children, yet only 7 percent lived with any of them (Burt et al., 1999). Other studies yield similar findings (Cowal et al., 2002; Maza and Hall, 1988; North and Smith, 1993; Rossi, 1989; Zima, Wells, Benjamin, and Duan, 1996). The likelihood of having one’s children separated from the family is higher for homeless mothers with a mental illness (Buckner, Bassuk, and Zima, 1993; Hoffman and Rosenheck, 2001; Smith and North, 1994; Zima et al., 1996; Zlotnick, Robertson, and Wright, 1999) and for mothers suffering from alcoholism (33%). Approximately one- to two-thirds of the mothers who reported domestic violence also experienced family separations (Browne and Bassuk, 1997; Cowal et al., 2002).

Homelessness is a major factor influencing these separations, with or without other service needs. Five years after entering shelters in New York City, 44 percent of a representative sample of mothers had become separated from one or more of their children (compared to 8 percent of poor mothers in housed families) (Cowal et al., 2002). Three factors predicted separations: maternal drug dependence, domestic violence, and (controlling for drug dependence) any institutionalization, most often for substance abuse treatment. But at any level of risk, homeless families were far more likely to become separated from their children than housed families. That is, even if a housed mother was both drug-dependent and experiencing domestic violence, she was less likely to have her children separated from her than a homeless mother who had neither of these factors (Cowal et al., 2002). Surprisingly, many of the separations occurred after families were rehoused.

There is also a link between homelessness and foster care. Although the majority of separated children in the studies reviewed were living with relatives, a substantial minority were in foster care or had Child Protective Service (CPS) involvement (26%, Cowal et al., 2002; 6%, DiBlasio and Belcher, 1992; 15%, Zlotnick, Robertson, and Wright, 1999). In a 5 year followup of a birth cohort of children in Philadelphia, being in a family that requested shelter was strongly related to CPS involvement and to foster care placement (Culhane et al., 2003). The risk for CPS involvement increased as the number of children in a family increased. Similarly, in another Philadelphia study, there was a greater risk for child welfare involvement for families with longer shelter stays, repeated homelessness, and fewer adults in the family (Park, Metraux, Brodbar, and Culhane, 2004a).

Family separations are not only disruptive to the family and the child during the separation, they can foster a multigenerational cycle of homelessness. Numerous studies have found that separation in childhood from one’s family of origin is a predictor of homelessness in adults (Bassuk et al., 1996; Bassuk, Rubin, and Lauriat, 1986; Knickman and Weitzman, 1989; Susser et al., 1991; Susser, Conover, and Streuning, 1987). In turn, homeless adults who experienced family separation as a child were more likely to be separated from their own children (Homelessness: The Foster Care Connection Institute for Children and Poverty, 1992). In fact, one study found that a large proportion of the children in foster care in the county being studied were born to parents who had histories of homelessness (Zlotnick, Kronstadt, and Klee, 1998).

Among the factors that influence separations are shelter admission rules (as noted earlier), social service policies, shelter life stresses, and parental efforts to limit the child’s exposure to shelter life (Barrow, 2004). Shelters often cannot accept larger families or children past a certain age (especially male children). The sheer stress and stigma of living in shelters can cause mothers to send their children to live with family or friends, especially among African American and Latino families (Shinn and Weitzman, 1996). Finally, homeless families and families involved in special service programs following shelter [after leaving a shelter] are subjected to high levels of professional scrutiny. Although several states have ruled out placement of children [in special programs] because of homelessness alone (Williams, 1991), at least one state training manual notes that the presence of risk factors such as homelessness, though not considered proof of abuse or neglect, “may point to a need for further investigation and future intervention” (New York State Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 1990).

Homelessness is not only a major factor in family separations; it also makes the reunification of separated families more difficult. This is particularly true if, after separation, parents lose access to income and housing supports that allow them to create a suitable environment for their children (Hoffman, Rosenheck, 2001). In particular, court-ordered separations may require that certain conditions be met before a family can be reunited, such as finding housing and employment and participating in specific treatment and parenting programs. Consequently, reunification occurs only for a subset of families (e.g., only 23% of the separated children in the New York City study were living with their mothers at the 5-year followup [Cowal et al., 2002]).

View full report


"report.pdf" (pdf, 4.18Mb)

Note: Documents in PDF format require the Adobe Acrobat Reader®. If you experience problems with PDF documents, please download the latest version of the Reader®