Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Homelessness is Not a Homogenous Experience

10/01/2007

It is important to recognize that people experience homelessness in many different ways. For example, if one were to examine the residential histories of those children (or adults) who are homeless across the United States on any given night, one would find that a number of different circumstances have led to their present situation. Likewise, the ultimate pathways they shall take out of homelessness will vary as well. While homeless, these children will experience different durations of shelter stay, the conditions of shelters will vary both within and across cities, and shelter rules will be quite different. For instance, a few shelters require a family to leave during the daytime while others do not force such a requirement (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2001). As such, homelessness is not a homogenous experience for children and it can be challenging to make generalized statements about the impact of “homelessness” on children because “homelessness” is not the same thing for all those who experience it. This can be the case as well for other stressful events, but there may be an especially high degree of variation in what homeless children encounter, both within and across locales and time periods.

Shelter conditions are probably an especially important factor in moderating the impact of homelessness for a child. Yet, previous investigations involving homeless children have not sought to measure attributes of a shelter or ecological indices to see if they relate to child outcome. No doubt this would be a challenging task and most studies have not had enough contrast in shelters from which families were enrolled to examine such issues. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that there are important qualities to shelters that may worsen or buffer a child’s experience while living there. These could include the amount of privacy accorded to families, the crowdedness of the facility, the extent to which rules are strictly enforced, the warmth of shelter staff, the size of the facility, its location, and whether families are asked to leave during the day or can remain on the premises.

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