Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Part II: Why Studies of Homeless Children Have Produced Inconsistent Findings


The previous section reviewed many of the published empirical articles that address the potential impact of homelessness on children. The continuum-of-risk figure (Figure 1-1) is helpful in summarizing various study findings. A rather consistent result across studies is noting elevated problems among homeless and low-income housed children compared to children in the general population. In essence, most studies have documented an apparent negative effect caused by exposure to a common set of “poverty-related” risks. What is less consistent across studies is whether an additional elevation in problems among homeless children as compared to low-income housed children is also found. Moreover, when differences are detected, limitations in methodology (such as not adequately measuring additional risk factors and/or not using multivariate analyses to control for them) call into question whether homelessness, per se, is behind the heightened severity of problems. In other words, it is hard to demarcate where poverty-related sources of risk end and homelessness-specific risks begin.

While the overall pattern of findings across studies does suggest that, more often than not, children’s exposure to homelessness increases their risk of adverse outcomes, it is difficult to make strong and definitive assertions about the impact of homelessness on children due to inconsistent study results. Rather, the effect that homelessness appears to have on children would seem to be dependent on a range of contextual factors and “effect modifiers.” Put simply, whether homelessness has an impact on children may depend. On the other hand, studies are much more consistent in discerning a negative impact of poverty on children (i.e., both low-income housed and homeless) across outcome domains and among different age groups within domains.

The remainder of this section offers some explanations as to why various studies involving homeless children have not been able to reliably produce findings suggestive of a negative impact of homelessness above and beyond the effects of broader poverty-related risks.

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