Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Part I: Literature Review


Using data from the National Survey of Homelessness Assistance Providers conducted in 1996, The Urban Institute (2000) estimated that families with children account for about 39 percent of the homeless population in this country on any given night.1 Based on this survey, researchers at The Urban Institute estimated that somewhere between 874,000 and 1,360,000 children experienced a homeless episode2 at some point in 1996. This implies that about 9 percent of poor children in the United States had a spell of homelessness that year. In most cases, a homeless family is comprised of a single mother with one or two young children in tow. This is particularly true in the Northeast, where, for instance, in Massachusetts about 95 percent of homeless families are single parent female headed (Bassuk et al., 1996). In some parts of the country it is more common to also encounter two-parent (or couple) families or families headed by a single father (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2001).

The research literature on homeless children now spans about 18 years, with the earliest studies having been published around 1987. One approach to reviewing empirical studies of homeless children is to summarize findings according to topical domain (e.g., mental health, health, education). To some extent, this chapter adopts this approach as well as it facilitates meaningful comparisons and inferences across studies. However, in an effort to make better sense of incongruities in various investigations of homeless children that have made their way to the published literature, it is also helpful to organize them in chronological order. Toward this end, it is useful to distinguish between a set of “first generation” studies and a second stage of research investigations on homeless children. Not all studies in the literature can be grouped so neatly, but such a distinction is reasonable in most cases. This review is not an exhaustive attempt to describe every study that has been published but covers many of the empirical investigations, particularly those that have included a housed comparison group children as it is very difficult to gauge the impact of homelessness, per se, on children by only involving homeless children in a study.

The first studies that were conducted on homeless children sounded an alarm (cf. Alperstein, Rappaport, and Flanigan, 1987; Bassuk and Rubin, 1987; Miller and Lin, 1988; Rescorla, Parker, and Stolley, 1991; Wood, Valdez, Hayashi, and Shen, 1990). Their findings indicated that homeless children had a range of health and mental health problems that called for immediate attention. Data for these investigations were collected in the mid-1980s, not long after the issue of homelessness for families became apparent. Families who required emergency shelter during this period in time encountered a shelter system in the United States that was only beginning to determine how to handle the needs of parents with young children and it is conceivable that shelter conditions were at their worst during the period in which these studies were conducted.

A second generation of studies on homeless children followed in the early 1990s spearheaded by these earlier findings. Some of these studies were funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), while others were supported by foundations and local grants. Investigators who included homeless children in their studies attempted to advance an understanding of the impact of homelessness on children by involving larger study populations, a greater breadth and quality of assessment instruments, and more advanced statistical techniques with which to analyze the data (cf. Bassuk, Weinreb, Dawson, Perloff, and Buckner, 1997; Buckner and Bassuk, 1997; Buckner, Bassuk, Weinreb, and Brooks, 1999; Buckner, Bassuk, and Weinreb, 2001; Garcia Coll, Buckner, Brooks, Weinreb, and Bassuk, 1998;; Masten, Miliotis, Graham-Bermann, Ramirez, and Neemann, 1993; Masten, Sesma, Si-Asar, Lawrence, Miliotis, and Dionne, 1997; Rafferty, Shinn, and Weitzman, 2004; Rubin, Erickson, San Agustin, Cleary, Allen, and Cohen, 1996; Schteingart, Molnar, Klein, Lowe, and Hartmann, 1995; Weinreb, Goldberg, Bassuk, and Perloff, 1998).

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