Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Historical Factors


The early studies of homeless children took place in contexts in which the problem of family homelessness had recently emerged and where communities had not had sufficient time nor had marshaled adequate resources to address the needs of this new homeless subgroup. While difficult to document, it is likely that shelter conditions for families have improved in most cities between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. What a typical child who was homeless in Washington, DC, in 1985 experienced versus what a child who was homeless in Worcester, Massachusetts, encountered in 1995 are very likely quite different. The contrast to 1985 is probably even greater now. The Stewart B. McKinney Act, which was passed in the late 1980s, has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars each year to communities to use in improving housing options and services available to homeless single adults, families, and unaccompanied youths. Legal changes and funding to reduce educational obstacles for homeless children could have made a difference in some communities as evidenced by findings in Worcester (Buckner et al., 2001) and more broadly (Anderson et al., 1995). It is safe to say that, were it not for Federal, state, and local funding to address the needs of homeless individuals and families, their plight would clearly be much worse.

One can make a bit more sense out of the inconsistencies across studies of homeless children by recognizing that the time span between some of these investigations was long enough that what investigators were observing in the later studies entailed a much greater societal response to the issue of homelessness that what the earliest studies had witnessed. For instance, it is probable that the “null” findings regarding school and education-related outcomes for homeless children in Worcester in the mid-1990s (Buckner et al., 2001) would not have emerged had the same investigation in the same city been conducted a decade earlier, before implementation of the McKinney Act and other responses, which began to rectify difficulties that homeless children were having in attending school.

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