Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Human Capital: Education, Employment, and Income


Adults in both homeless and other poor families generally have low levels of educational attainment and minimal work histories. Compared to the national average of 75 percent of all mothers having a high school diploma or graduate equivalency diploma (GED), for example, high school graduation or GED rates for mothers in homeless families range from 35 percent to 61 percent across a number of studies (Bassuk et al., 1996; Burt et al., 1999; Lowin et al., 2001; Rog et al., 1995b; Shinn and Weitzman, 1996). In studies that compared homeless families to poor families, 46 percent of the poor mothers had at least attained high school graduation or a GED (Bassuk et al., 1996); Shinn et al. (1998) found a similar percentage of 42 percent. Overall, the educational rates for homeless families are lower than for homeless single adults (47% vs. 63% in the NSHAPC) (Burt et al., 1999) but similar to other poor families. Again, there are often regional differences reflected in education ranges, with West Coast rates of education typically higher than East Coast rates (Lowin et al., 2001; Rog et al., 1995b).

Not surprisingly, most homeless mothers are not currently working while in a shelter. In a sample of 411 homeless families being helped by shelters in Washington State (Lowin et al., 2001), only 15 percent of the respondents had worked 20 hours or more in the week prior to the interview, with 44 percent of their spouses or partners working during that period. Rog and colleagues (1995b) found that 14 percent of homeless women in the study were working upon entry into a shelter, whereas less than 1 percent were working in the Worcester Family Research Project (Bassuk et al., 1996).

The majority of homeless women in the study, however, have had work experience. Bassuk and colleagues found that 67 percent of the homeless mothers had held a job for more than 3 months. Rog and colleagues found that nearly all (92%) of the women reported working at some point in the past; 62 percent had held a job for at least 1 year (Rog et al., 1995b). Similarly, in the more recent SAMHSA Homeless Families Project, involving homeless women screened for mental health and/or substance abuse problems in eight sites across the country, 96 percent of the women reported working sometime in the past, although only 14 percent were working at baseline (SAMHSA Homeless Families Program, 2004).

The incomes of homeless mothers are significantly below the Federal poverty level (Bassuk et al., 1996, Rog et al., 1995b, Shinn and Weitzman, 1996). Homeless families’ incomes are slightly higher than the incomes of homeless single adults, because of the families’ greater access to means-tested benefit programs such as welfare, and because of more help from relatives and friends. Nonetheless, homeless families’ incomes are far too low to obtain adequate housing without subsidies (Burt et al., 1999). In the Worcester Family Research Project, more than half earned less than $8,000 per year, placing them at 63 percent of the poverty level for a family of three (Bassuk, 1996). Similarly, in the NSHAPC in 1996 the median income for a homeless family was only $418 per month, or 41 percent of the poverty line for a family of three (Burt et al., 1999).

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