Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Identification of Potential Data Sets


Data sets were sought that could extend the understanding of homelessness beyond currently homeless families to a broader sample of families who may have been homeless in the past or may be at particular risk of homelessness in the future. Some of the candidate data sets are ones that Westat has previously analyzed, such as the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), and the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (currently called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health [NSDUH]). Other data sets reviewed include the National Survey of America's Families (NSAF), the California Health Interview Survey, the Current Population Survey (CPS), the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), the Survey of Program Dynamics (SPD), the National Longitudinal Surveys of Labor Market Experience (NLS), the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study, and the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW). Three other studies-the Women's Employment Study, Three-City Study, and the Chicago Women's Health Risk Study-were identified through the review of the literature and the Internet, and through contacts with colleagues in the field.

For each data set, information was obtained on its purpose, use, size, scope, domains, and individual variables and each was initially screened based on three criteria:

  1. The data set was public and could be readily obtained (e.g., through electronic download);
  2. The data set contained information on a family's housing status or history so that it was possible to determine if a family was, or had been, at risk of homelessness or had experienced homelessness; and
  3. The data set was organized by family so that analyses could examine the family-level information that related to housing status.

The first criterion was essential so that any secondary analyses could be conducted within the time frame of this project. The second criterion relates to the study's relevance to our typology efforts; data sets may contain housing information but, if there is no information on homelessness or other unstable housing situations, there is little to inform how we would define a typology of homeless families. Finally, data need to be available at the family level to permit analyses that can examine the factors that put families at greater risk for homelessness or buffer them from the experience. Some data sets provide data only at the aggregate level (i.e., by city or community) and do not allow for individual family analyses.

Table 4-2 displays the data sets that were screened and the results of the screening. The review is divided into two sections, focusing on the general population surveys first, followed by the special population studies. Studies were classified as "General Population" if the sample was designed so that estimates could be made for a national (or state) population, even if, as in some cases, the study also oversampled low-income or other groups. "Special Population" studies focused on specific subsets, such as families involved in the welfare system (NSCAW), low-income families (Chicago Women's Health Study, Three-City Study, and Women's Employment Study), and children born to unwed mothers (Fragile Families). Results from these studies cannot be generalized to a national or state level. The table displays information on the population scope and design for each data set, as well as the content relevant to the typology development, and the data sets are listed by their scope and population focus.

Of the national population studies identified, only the NLS and PSID met all three screening criteria. All others lacked information on housing stability or homelessness, with the exception of the American Housing Survey (AHS), which collected data at the housing unit level, rather than the individual or family level. The four "special population" studies that focus on discrete populations of women and their families met the criteria. All seven data sets that met the criteria were then reviewed more closely to determine their benefit for secondary analysis.

Table 4-2. Data sets screened for secondary analyses
  Structure Domains Addressed
National sample Longitudinal design Housing/homelessness domain Housing subsidies Employment/income data Agency service involvement
General population studies
American Housing Survey* (AHS) Y Y Y Y Y Y
Current Population Survey (CPS) Y No No No Y Y
National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) Y No No No Y Y
National Longitudinal Surveys of Labor Market Experience (NLS) Y Y Y Y Y Y
National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) Y No No No Y No
Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) Y Y Y Y Y Y
Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) Y Y No Y Y Y
Survey of Program Dynamics (SPD) Y Y No Y Y Y


California Health Interview Survey No No No No Y Y
Special population studies
National Survey of America's Families (NSAF) Y No Y Y Y Y
National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-being (NSCAW) Y Y No No Y Y


Chicago Women's Health Risk Study No Y Y No Y Y
Fragile Families Study Y Y Y Y Y Y
Three-City Study No Y Y Y Y Y
Women's Employment Study+ No Y Y Y Y Y
* Family-level data unavailable.
+ Data currently unavailable.

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