Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Shelter as an Intervention


On the surface, a shelter stay may seem like a negative experience for a child in a low-income, but as Bassuk and Rosenberg (1990) remarked, “for some children, their stays in a neighborhood-based family shelter have been the most stable and predictable experiences of their young lives (p.261).” In fact, a stay in a family shelter (especially if it is neighborhood based and not a barrack-like shelter or a motel) accords some families the opportunity to receive assistance from case management staff in applying for assistance programs for which they may be eligible as well as referrals to professionals for treatment of one sort or another. As a general rule, the staffs of family shelters have good intentions and, over time, shelter staffs aim to improve their programs and be more responsive to their guests. Hence, some shelters may be providing useful assistance to families, thereby ameliorating other factors that can have a negative impact. In contrast, low-income families who have never been homeless can sometimes be quite isolated and far removed from a range of services and treatment programs that may be beneficial. The implication for research on the impact of homelessness on children is that a shelter stay is not always a negative event for a child. Were it the case in studies that homeless children had been literally without shelter (e.g., living in a car or in campgrounds), than the contrast in living conditions would be much more striking than is sometimes the case. In reality, studies that compare sheltered homeless versus low-income housed children are dealing with a much more complex underlying set of residential circumstances in the lives of each group of children than is generally appreciated. Said differently, the living conditions of children living in shelter are not always as bad as they might seem while the conditions of children in low-income housed settings can be much worse than imagined.

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