Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Social Capital: Social Support, Conflict, and Violence


Social support is an important buffer for stress and a major predictor of emotional and physical well-being (Cohen and Wills, 1985). Social networks can be an important housing resource for poor families, who frequently double-up with others when they cannot afford independent housing. Findings about social networks of homeless families, however, are mixed. Several studies have found that mothers in the midst of an episode of homelessness, compared to housed poor women, have less available instrumental and emotional support, less frequent contact with network members, and more conflicted relationships (Bassuk et al., 1986; Bassuk and Rosenberg, 1988; Bassuk et al., 1996; Culhane, Metraux, and Hadley, 2001; Passero et al., 1991). Two studies found that homeless mothers were more likely to name children as sources of support (Bassuk and Rosenberg, 1988; Wood et al., 1990), although this could reflect the circumstance of living in shelter with children.

An ethnographic study of 80 homeless families found that the lack of friends or relatives, or the withdrawal of support from these people, was an important factor in the families becoming homeless (McChesney, 1995). However, Goodman (1991b) found no differences in support between homeless and housed mothers. In the New York City study of homeless families and poor housed families, Shinn and colleagues (1991) reported that newly homeless mothers had more recent contact with network members than did poor housed mothers, and over three-quarters had stayed with network members before turning to shelter. This suggests that families may exhaust social capital, rather than having less capital to begin with, than other poor families. Moreover, additional analysis (Toohey et al., 2004) 5 years later found that social networks of the (now) formerly homeless mothers in this sample were quite similar to those of their housed counterparts.

Social networks, unfortunately, can be the sources of conflict, trauma, and violence, as well as support. In the Worcester Family Research Project, homeless mothers had smaller social networks than housed women and reported more conflicted relationships in their networks. Therefore, large social networks emerged as a protective factor for homelessness, but having a network marked by interpersonal conflict was a risk factor for homelessness (Bassuk et al., 1997). For both homeless and housed mothers, conflict with family and friends was related to impaired mental health (Bassuk et al., 2002). Sibling conflict, in particular, was a stronger predictor of mental health symptoms than was parental conflict.

Homeless mothers, like poor women in general, have experienced high rates of both domestic and community violence (Bassuk et al., 2001). Many women report having been both victims and witnesses of violence over their lifetimes. In the Worcester Family Research Project, almost two-thirds of the homeless mothers had been severely physically assaulted by an intimate partner, and one-third had a current or recent abusive partner. More than one-fourth of the mothers reported having needed or received medical treatment because of these attacks (Bassuk et al., 1996). Supporting these findings, Rog and her colleagues (1995b) reported that almost two-thirds of their nine-city sample of homeless women described one or more severe acts of violence by a current or former intimate partner. Not surprisingly, many of these women reportedly lost or left their last homes because of domestic violence.

In addition to adult violent victimization, many homeless mothers experienced severe abuse and assault in childhood. The Worcester Family Research Project (Bassuk et al., 1996) documented that more than 40 percent of homeless mothers had been sexually molested by the age of 12. Women participating in the SAMHSA Homeless Families Project reported similar findings, with 44 percent reporting sexual molestation by a family member or someone they knew before the age of 18. Sixty-six percent of the women in the Worcester Family Research Project experienced severe physical abuse, mainly at the hand of an adult caretaker. Other studies have found similar results (Rog, et al., 1995b; SAMHSA, 2004).

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