Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Paper Title: Homelessness and At-Risk Families: The Characteristics and Causes of Homelessness Among At Risk Families With Children in Twenty American Cities


Paper Title: Homelessness and At-Risk Families:
The Characteristics and Causes of Homelessness Among At Risk Families With Children in Twenty American Cities

(full text of paper can be found in Appendix D of this report)
Authors: David Reingold and Angela Fertig

Summary of Presentation. This paper attempts to understand whether (and how) the family homelessness problem has changed over the last ten years and what factors seem to predict family homelessness today. The first section of the paper reviewed the existing poverty literature to determine whether various macroeconomic and social conditions (welfare reform, decreasing wage returns, low income housing, housing affordability, and incarceration of homeless parents due to drug abuse and violence) have altered the extent and degree of homelessness among families.

The authors conclude that evidence on welfare reform suggests that it has not pushed more at-risk families into homelessness, though there may be a small increase in homelessness among welfare leavers in some states. Wages upon returning to work for those at the bottom of the wage distribution has worsened over the past few years but, because the working poor rate is below the 1993 high, it is unlikely that changes in the labor market have exacerbated family homelessness in recent years. Data on the effects of low-income housing reform on homelessness suggests that the changes in HUD HOPE VI Program may be increasing homelessness for illegal residents. The authors recognized the link between the lack of affordable housing and family homelessness; however, they believe that the shortage has not worsened over the past ten years and thus is unlikely to have forced more families into homelessness. Finally, there may be a link between increases in the number of families who become homeless and patterns of reentry of incarcerated parents, but not enough is known to understand the link.

The second part of the paper focused on a brief reanalysis of data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study, examining the factors that predict homelessness. The analysis focused on two different subsamples: those who report being homeless at the 12-month interview (n=140) and those who report being homeless at the 36-month interview (n=110). Homelessness in this sample is associated with race, educational attainment, welfare receipt, less employment, lower earnings, experiences of hardships (e.g., inability to pay utilities or rent), living in public housing, paying a greater proportion of income toward rent, higher rates of prior incarceration of the father, drug use, emotional distress, domestic violence reports, and less access to social support. Regression results seem to indicate that health, drug use, and domestic violence are the best predictors of family homelessness though these account for only a small amount of the variance explaining whether or not a family becomes homeless.

Summary of reactions and comments. For the literature review analysis portion of the paper, there was discussion about the problem of limiting the timeframe to the past ten years, especially if the conclusion is true that the affordable housing and homelessness situations have had less change during this period. It is difficult to examine the effects of a condition on the problem if the condition has been relatively constant. Taking a longer time perspective may provide a more valid assessment of the relationship among these conditions.

Much of the discussion focused on concerns about the analyses conducted on the Fragile Families database and strategies for strengthening them. First, the analysis compared the families who had reported being homeless at one point or another with all other families. As this data set was not restricted to poor families, some of the findings (such as receipt of a housing subsidy increasing the risk of being homeless) may actually be indicators of poverty. If the control group was restricted to just poor families (e.g., those who are at 50% of the poverty level) the analyses could find that a housing subsidy actually acts as a protective factor. It was also noted that, because the community was known, it may be possible to adjust the poverty definition by the area median income.

There was some concern voiced that the sample size was small and thus might be sensitive only to moderate and large effects.

Some of the discussion focused on whether it would be possible to link people to the housing market conditions in which they live to be able to understand the housing market factors related to homelessness.

In addition to examining individuals who had experienced homelessness, it might be useful to know if families are doubled up. If the individual is on a lease, it may be possible to determine if he or she is living with others or has others living in the residence. It would also be useful to see if the person is paying anything toward rent. The fact that a family is not contributing toward rent may help them stay housed.

Finally, there was a great deal of discussion sparked about the ability to predict homelessness among families and the implications for the typology. The authors noted that the R-squares on their regressions were quite small and questioned whether homelessness was an event that was due to the idiosyncrasies of the population and environments. It was noted that R-square or variance explained may not be as useful as success of prediction. Even excellent predictors can't predict much variance when their distributions are quite different from the distribution of the criterion variable.

It was also noted that homelessness is relatively rare in a restricted time frame but can become a much more common event for poor families over a longer period of time. It was noted again that, from a prevention standpoint, it may be hard to predict who will become homeless and thus it may be necessary to wait until families present as homeless to intervene and triage.

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