Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Filling Knowledge Gaps


Although not designed to provide information on homeless families, the Fragile Families database has provided information that is useful in filling some of our knowledge gaps with respect to homeless families. One important gap that this data set helps fill is providing information on a national sample of homeless families, rather than being restricted to a single city. In fact, looking more closely at the geographic location of families (e.g., were homeless families more likely than others to come from some metropolitan areas?), might be another useful analysis. Unfortunately, geographic data were not readily available to those who had access to the public data sets. Reingold and Fertig, in "The Characteristics and Causes of Homelessness Among At Risk families with Children in Twenty American Cities" included as Appendix D, had unrestricted access to the Fragile Families data and did examine a few contextual variables. However, only the number of shelter beds in a city related to the probability of experiencing homelessness. It is possible, however, that unexplored contextual variables may be important to examine in predicting not only homelessness but residential stability as well.

The Fragile Families data set is also useful in that it provides information on a broader sample of at-risk families. As already noted, a key finding from this reanalysis is that there is a range of residential patterns experienced by even very poor families and that it is as useful to determine what keeps families stable as it is to know what predicts homelessness. This type of analysis is difficult to do with the typical homeless database but was possible in this reanalysis.

The fact that the Fragile Families project has collected information over time is also important, providing a longitudinal perspective that is often missing from studies. The longitudinal analyses not only showed that the incidence of homelessness was relatively rare (less than 10% ever homeless), even in this extreme poverty sample, it also showed that only a handful of households (9 households, 1% of the eligible families) reported being homeless in more than one time period. It is also true, however, that less than a quarter of the families remained stable throughout both time periods.

The eventual release of the 5-year followup survey should provide even more opportunities to examine the residential patterns of these various households, including a chance to examine households that fall back into homelessness, as well as what predicts long-term stability. The small number of families that experience homelessness, however, will likely make it difficult to do many analyses with such a group even if they could be identified. The small number also makes it difficult to use the Fragile Families data set to examine any subsets of homeless families, such as those who are working or two-parent families.

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