Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. At Risk Families & Homelessness


This fragmentation in the literature has created a perception that many hypothesized correlates of family homelessness matter equally.   Whether it is domestic violence, drug use, weak labor force attachment, lack of informal social support, high housing costs, climate, the decline in the value of cash welfare benefits, etc., all have some empirical support to suggest that each is a cause of the family homelessness problem.  The vast number of causes associated with the problem creates an environment where it is easy for policy makers to downplay the problem family homelessness or declare it is too complicated to combat.

For instance, we know that family homelessness is closely associated with female-headed households, unwed childrearing, and the economic hardships of single-mothers (Bassuk et al, 1996; Early, 2004).  However, this observation rings hallow when we look at some of the national trends on these risk factors and attempt to link them to recent increases in family homelessness.  From 1996 to 2001 the teen birth rate declined by 24 percent, the high-school drop out rate declined by 10 percent, the percent of youth not attending school and not working declined by 11 percent and the percent of families where no parent has a full-time, year round job dropped 11 percent (Kids Count Databook, 2004:33).  These trends are supported by more detailed studies which indicate that the economic hardship experienced by mother-only families declined at a faster rate during the economic expansion of the 1990s than during prior periods of economic growth (Winship and Jencks, 2004).  How is it possible that family homelessness at the micro-level is being driven by out-of-wedlock births and economic hardship among single mothers when these factors at the macro-level are improving?

A similar disconnect seems to exist with respect to welfare reform, at risk families and family homelessness.  Micro-level studies indicate welfare and other cash benefit programs have a protective effect against family homelessness (Salomon, Bassuk, and Brooks, 1996).  However, at the micro-level the welfare reforms of 1996, introducing time limits and work requirements, would seem to make at risk families more vulnerable to homelessness; however, this does not appear to be the case.  A number of studies have tracked welfare recipients and studied the impact of these policy changes on socio-economic outcomes, including the degree to which they have pushed at-risk families into economic hardship, such as homelessness.  According to the 1997 National Survey of American Families, 7.1 percent of former welfare recipients reported that they had to move in with others because they couldn’t pay mortgage, rent, or utility bills (Loprest, 1999).  This figure is a bit lower than more recent cross-sectional evaluations of welfare reform in specific states.  For example, a comprehensive evaluation of Indiana’s welfare reform indicates that nearly 9 percent of current and former TANF recipients became homeless approximately 3 years after these reforms took place, over 25 percent had their utilities turned off; about 8 percent had been evicted; and about 17 percent indicated they either moved in with others or obtained roommates to defray rental costs (Institute for Family and Social Responsibility, 2000). 

However, more rigorous experimental data from Connecticut and Florida provide little or no evidence that welfare time-limits and work requirements have increased homelessness.   In Connecticut, 2.6 percent of the treatment (TANF) group reported being homeless following welfare reform compared to 1.5 percent of the control group (those not subject to time-limits and work requirements).  This difference is statistically significant, but the percentages are very small. In contrast, Florida’s experimental evaluation indicated no statistically significant difference between the treatment and control groups.  As the authors of this report indicate, “homelessness has been quite rare” among welfare leavers (compared to those recipients operating under the old rules). These authors go on to summarize the welfare reform literature and its effects on homelessness:

Relatively few respondents reported experiencing the most serious kinds of housing distress: eviction and homelessness. Almost all the studies reported the percentage of respondents who had been homeless since leaving welfare. Although the definitions vary, all the figures are 2 percent or below. Three studies reported the percentage who had been evicted since leaving welfare: Florida FTP (8 percent), Ohio (8 percent), and Utah (5 percent). Other studies found that relatively few recipients had moved to worse living arrangements since leaving welfare (in fact, respondents who had moved were more likely to have moved to better arrangements). As noted earlier, relatively large proportions of time-limit leavers are living in public or subsidized housing; it is possible that housing subsidies are protecting some families from severe housing distress (Bloom, Farrell, and Link, 2002:91).

Therefore, the evidence seems to indicate that welfare reform has not pushed more at-risk families into homelessness.  While it is true that the implementation of welfare reform in some states has resulted in higher rates of homelessness among welfare leavers, the numbers are extremely small.  So, how is it possible that one of the protective factors (welfare) that keeps families from homelessness has been dramatically changed without any observed increase in more homeless families because of these reforms?

It is worth noting two other areas where the family homelessness literature seems disconnected from the macro-trends: (1) Housing affordability; and (2) The intersection between crime, mental illness, and drug use.  Each is discussed in turn.

The housing affordability literature seems to indicate that aggregate levels of homelessness are associated with higher housing cost metropolitan areas (Quigely, Raphael, and Smolensky, 2001; Price-Spratlen and Kanon, 2003).  While the United States has long had a shortage of affordable and available housing units,” [t]he economic boom of the 1990s did little to improve the mismatch between the number of renters with household incomes of $16,000 or less and the number of affordable and available (not occupied by households with higher incomes) rentals. Indeed, between 1993 and 2003, the shortfall in affordable and available units remained essentially unchanged at 5.2 million” (2005:23).  Again, how is it possible that housing affordability is increasing homelessness when the problem of housing affordability has not changed much since 1993?

A similar pattern exists for the intersection between family homelessness, crime, mental illness, and drug use.  The family homelessness literature makes a clear connection to the role of domestic violence (crime), drug use and mental illness as risk factors in becoming homeless (Wood et al, 1990; Goodman, 1991; Bassuk et al, 1998).  That is, relatively high rates of domestic violence, drug use and mental illness create circumstances where households may be unable to manage the challenges of daily life, resorting to life on the street or in a shelter.  However, macro-level trends indicate the rate of sexual assault between 1993 and 2003 declined by 62.5 percent (Catalano, 2004), usage rates for marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogens have remained constant (or increased modestly) in the past decade (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, 2004), and rates of mental illness have remained unchanged (or are declining because of new pharmacological treatments) during a time of rising family homelessness. Again, how is it possible that domestic violence, mental illness and drug use are causing the family homelessness problem when rates of domestic violence, drug use and mental illness have declined or remained unchanged?

It is important to note that there are at least two areas where the family homelessness literature is supported by macro-trends on at risk families: (1) The decline in wages for unskilled workers, and (2) the destruction of public housing that provided a buffer against family homelessness.  Each is discussed in turn.

The family homelessness literature clearly indicates the importance of family income and labor force participation as determinants of unstable housing situations that lead to homelessness (Wood et al, 1990; Shinn at al, 1998).  In fact, according to a detailed study of 164 working poor mothers, 12 percent reported being homeless for some period of time in the past twelve months (Edin and Lein, 1997:113), and some of these spells are likely due to problems in the labor market (underemployment, unemployment, joblessness, or low-wages).  The link between family homelessness and limited labor market opportunities for unskilled workers may have been exacerbated by the growth in full-time workers who remain in poverty.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5.9 percent of working families lived below the poverty level in 2001, up from 5.6 percent in the previous year (Mosisa, 2003). This number increased to 6.3 percent of working families in 2002 where it has remained unchanged (U.S. Department of Labor, 2005).  As one might expect, two earner families are less likely to be working poor than single earner families.  Mother-headed households had a working-poor rate of 23.0 percent and father-only households had a working-poor rate of 13.5 percent, while married parents had a working-poor rate of only 5.8 percent in 2003 (U.S. Department of Labor, 2005).

The overall 0.7 percent increase (from 5.6 percent in 2000 to 6.3 percent in 2002) in the working poor family rate may appear small; however, it represents hundreds of thousands of households.  If ten percent of this population were to become homeless, that would represent a substantial increase in the family homelessness problem.  Therefore, it would appear that the wage returns to work for those at the bottom of the wage distribution has worsened over the past few years, and may be causing upward pressure on the number of homeless – including families.  However, the working poor rate remains below the 1993 high, so it is unlikely that changes in the low-wage labor market have aggravated the family homelessness problem beyond where it was in the early 1990s.

Much like having a well-paying job is a protective factor against homelessness, public housing and other low income housing subsidies have been shown to protect families from experiencing multiple homelessness spells (Bassuk et al, 1997) – even though these subsidies are not well-targeted to the homeless (Early, 2004).  However, low income housing programs and policy especially public housing, has undergone substantial changes in the past ten years.  In particular, the HOPE VI effort, combined with the low-income housing reform Act of 1998, has attempted to address substantial deterioration of the public housing stock, while promoting mixed-income replacement housing. Moreover, the 1998 Act gave local housing authorities increased flexibility in how they operate their programs, including giving preference to higher-income tenants even at the expense of the very poor.  Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of run-down public housing units have been demolished and replacement housing has been provided in a limited number of new mixed-income housing developments, as well as rental-based Section 8 vouchers.  Low-income housing advocates are correct to point out that the number of replacement units is far less than the number of units that have been torn-down.  These same advocates fear that the transformation of public housing has increased the number of low-income families who have no place to live. 

Unfortunately, evidence on how these changes in the public housing program have impacted residents is not very comprehensive or systematic.  However, we do have some indication of these effects (and whether they are causing more families to become homeless) from selected cities across the United States.  The only national-level effort to track families affected by these low-income housing policy changes is being conducted by The Urban Institute.  According to the study’s director, “…we did indeed find a few people who had become homeless, but for the most part the unassisted renters were doing well. Several of them had earned their way off housing assistance; a few of them have become homeowners.  So at this point…we did not find big indications of people becoming homeless” (Popkin, 2004).

In contrast, detailed research on Chicago’s public housing transformation efforts indicates these structural policy changes may be having a dramatic effect on the family homeless problem.  For instance, “[n]early 52 percent of squatters [i.e., non-lease tenants] report experiencing homelessness in the year after building closure. On average, a squatter moves at least twice (the mean is 2.7 times) in the year after building closure. 4% stay in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) dwellings and shelters, while 5% stay with friends or relatives…[And] one year after building closure 13 percent of the squatter population is homeless” (Venkatesh, et al., 2004).

A primary reason for these contradictory findings is that the national Urban Institute study is only tracking individuals and families with formal lease agreements with local housing authorities, whereas the Chicago study is also tracking those individuals who live in public housing illegally.  Unfortunately, we have little or no national data on the number of public housing squatters, making it impossible to know exactly how many of these individuals and/or families may be at risk of homelessness as a result of national efforts to revitalize public housing.  Nevertheless, the Chicago data seem to indicate that the changes being introduced via HOPE VI and the 1998 housing reform act, may be exacerbating the homelessness problem – particularly among illegal residents and families living in public housing.

In sum, the family homelessness literature has unfolded in a piece-meal fashion, and is disconnected from the theoretical paradigm that simultaneously recognizes both individual and structural factors that generate risk, as well as protection from homelessness where these factors can be immediate (proximate) or cumulative from the past (distal).  The proliferation of family homelessness research, focused on narrow pieces of this paradigm (or typology), has established findings that appear counter-intuitive to many macro-trends for at risk families.  As a result, the value of this literature to policy makers has been diminished since it has been unable to conduct research that can accommodate the complexity of the problem.

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