Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Introduction


Scholarly research over the past twenty-five years has firmly established the emergence and persistence of family homelessness in the United States.   The homeless household – usually a mother and her children – represents a departure from the stereotypical image of skid-row residents (sometimes referred to as the “old homeless”) who are predominately single, working age males. Homeless households (or families), frequently perceived as a component of the “new” homeless, are thought to have emerged in the late 1970s as a result of changes in the labor market, largely caused by deindustrialization, as well as shifting marriage patterns, the decline in value of in-cash welfare benefits, rising housing costs, and the crack epidemic (For additional historic trends and potential explanations for the emergence and growth of family homelessness in the United States see Jencks 1994; Rossi 1994).

Recent estimates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (1999) suggest that 15 percent of homeless households are families (that is one or more people represented by each client in the 1996 National Survey of Homeless Shelters). This means that between 900,000 and 1.4 million children experience a homelessness event with their parents (Burt, 2001).  These children are evenly distributed by age – 22 percent are 0 to 2 years old, 22 percent are 3 to 5 years old, 33 percent are 6 to 11 years old, and 20 percent are 12 to 17 years old.  These estimates of the family homelessness problem are consistent with a systematic review of sixty data collection exercises of homelessness enumeration between 1980 and the early 1990s (Shlay and Rossi, 1992).

Unfortunately, we do not know how much the family homelessness problem has changed since the mid-1990s – the last time HUD administered the National Survey of Homeless Shelters.  However, in places where consistent records are kept the family homelessness problem appears to be getting substantially worse.  For example, the number of homeless families in Minnesota tripled to 1,341 in 2003 a night from 434 in 1991 when the State started collecting consistent homeless shelter counts and censuses of people living in public spaces (Kaufman, 2004).

Our understanding of the family homelessness problem comes from a growing literature designed to measure the characteristics of homeless families, as well as the circumstances that are responsible for causing homelessness spells among parents and their children.  For the most part, these studies have substantially improved our ability to identify the correlates of family homelessness (see, for example, Bassuk and Rodenberg, 1998; Wood et al, 1990; Bassuk et al, 1996; 1997; Shinn, Knickman and Weitzman, 1991; Shinn et al, 1997; Caton et al, 2000; Goodman, 1991; Quigely, Raphael, and Smolensky 2001; Main, 1996).

Unfortunately, much of this research presents family homelessness as the product of individual characteristics without adequate attention to community (or structural) circumstances.  The prominence of individual forces, such as mental illness, drug use and domestic violence, in this research stems from a reliance on studies from a single city, limiting what we can say about the relative importance of community variation in local housing market conditions, climate, the supply of shelter beds, and the presence of local anti-loitering laws. 

When the literature attempts to bring-in the structural aspects of family homelessness, it has done so with research strategies that omit the individual from the analysis.  The typical approach is to predict municipal-level homelessness rates or counts with selected characteristics of the city and its population. This aggregate approach may tell us how family homelessness rates vary by a city’s housing affordability, among other city-level factors of interest, but it cannot tell us whether the lack of affordable housing actually increases an individual household’s chance of becoming homeless or whether housing affordability has a stronger effect on family homelessness than individual mental illness, drug abuse or domestic violence.

Another shortcoming of the family homelessness literature (and the homelessness literature in general) is the tendency to collect data from individuals who have sought assistance from homeless shelters without collecting comparable information from non-shelter beneficiaries.  These studies tend to use duration of shelter use or repeat shelter use as the dependent variable, seeking to explain why some families remain homeless for extended periods of time or experience multiple homelessness spells (sometimes referred to as chronic homelessness).  As a result, these studies are unable to provide much information on why some at risk families become homeless and others do not.

These shortcomings have resulted in a research literature that compartmentalizes the problem as one that derives only from the individual or only from the community – failing to integrate across the micro- and macro-levels.  That is, we know individual characteristics matter and we know structural characteristics matter; however, we do not know if individual characteristics matter when controlling for city-level variation in structural characteristics or if structural characteristics matter when controlling for individual variation. To answer this type of question, we need detailed life-history information from a representative sample of households (some who have been homeless and other that have not) across a number of different geographic units (such as cities) that vary by characteristics thought to be responsible for creating conditions that can lead to homelessness.

Fortunately, the Fragile Families and Child Well Being Study meets all of these basic criteria. This new longitudinal birth-cohort sample includes nearly 5,000 children born between 1998 and 2000 in twenty cities in the United States with populations over 200,000.  The survey over-samples births to unmarried parents and follows the families from birth through 3 years of age thus far.  The Fragile Families data is well-suited to the goals of this analysis and allows us to overcome many of the limitations of prior research.  That is, these data allow us to measure the impact of structural variation (at the city-level) on the probability of becoming homeless, while comparing low-income households that have been homeless to those that have not, controlling for a wide-range of individual socio-economic and demographic characteristics, physical and mental health conditions, drug use, exposure to domestic violence, and access to informal and formal social support.

This paper is organized into four sections.  First, we provide a critique of the existing family homelessness literature and argue these studies have been unable to adequately capture the conceptual typology of individual versus structural causes of homelessness.  Second, we explore the limitations of the family homelessness literature and its disconnect with trends in risk factors thought to shape family homelessness and the well-being of at risk families.  Third, we describe our empirical strategy, data, and results.  Forth, we summarize our findings and discuss the limitations and implications of our analysis.

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